What makes a company choose the town or city they do business in? Do they just fall into an area and set up shop like they’re setting up camp? Do they drive down the road and decide to just pull off at the next exit? Do they take a survey of their friends and family? If they’re smart, they do their homework, and more and more business owners are choosing Duneland as a place to not only establish their new business, but also to stay in year after year for the long haul.
Heather Ennis, executive director of the Duneland/Chesterton Chamber of Commerce and member of the Duneland Economic Development Company (DEDC), has made it her business to help others find a home in the region. She says they are a one-stop-shop for those looking for answers. “Our goal is to provide a place to get the answers. When you’re starting a business or growing a business it can be tough and we want to help navigate that. We work closely with all of the municipalities to help business owners understand their processes and procedures. We give people the answers for the infrastructure they need, tools they need, and we refer businesses to them so they can establish a network here and be successful, so we are the place where they come to get answers,” Ennis says.
The chamber is a first point of contact for growing or establishing businesses, and Ennis says they don’t necessarily sit back and wait for business owners to come to them. “We continually go out to recruit new businesses to come to the area, following up on every lead we get, whether it’s big or small. There are three components to economic development. There’s retention, expansion, attraction. So not only do we want to be a resource to businesses looking to locate here, but we also want to keep a business here that may encounter problems. For example, if a business is land locked and they want to expand, we keep track of where people have land for sale so we can help businesses look for enough acreage. We want to bet that first call and if we don’t know the answer, we can figure it out. If people are having workforce issues and are looking outside of our market, we want to be their resource to alleviate some of that stress because relocating is an expensive proposition,” Ennis says.
Jeff Freeze treasurer of the DEDC, vice president of the Burns Harbor Town Council, and business owner in the area says that working together as a region has been essential to attracting business to the area “With the DEDC there is an idea of taking a regional approach, combining the municipalities, all under one umbrella. It gives us a better chance to put our best foot forward when companies are looking to locate here and start up. I think the DEDC has done a good job of figuring out what the different communities want to have or not have. For example, a company with truck traffic may not be an issue for Chesterton, but is for Burns Harbor since they have plenty. The mentality of knowing one another’s needs is very important,” says Freeze.
One of the biggest developments in the Duneland region over the past year has been bringing Urschel Labs to town and Freeze helps to put that move into perspective. He says, “Keeping Urschel Labs in Porter County is a win for the region and frankly a win for the state. You don’t want to see a community like Valparaiso lose Urschel ever, but if Urschel is going to go ten miles north, we keep all of those jobs here in the county. Urschel is a very good corporate neighbor and it’s a win for the region. Along those same lines, there was a lot of political upheaval in the town of Porter during the last election, but getting the waterpark up and running again, Seven Peaks on highway 20, has helped. When companies like Seven Peaks look at our region they look for quality of life, access to transportation, access to connectivity. We have that here,” he says.
One of the ways that Freeze would like to see the region develop is in marketing their connectivity ability. He says, “One of the biggest economic elements we can focus on is internet connectivity and we are fortunate to have dark fiber running throughout our county, but we’re not doing enough to promote that. I’ve had some conversations with people who understand and know the impact it can have and technology people get really excited when you talk about dark fiber. Milliseconds may not matter to you or I, but for datacenters, milliseconds can make the difference of millions of dollars in a stock trade. We need to find a way to leverage that fiber and get these businesses into our community.”
Fiber optics and other utilities are being developed down the 49 corridor through the Pope Farm south along the highway. “Chesterton is doing a great job of putting utilities down 49 and if it is well managed, the 49 corridor has the opportunity to be really interesting from a medical industry perspective. Not only the hospitals will benefit, but we can attract specialists, research people, and there are opportunities in the medical industry broader than just patient care. These industries can develop down the 49 corridor and I hope that continues to be a focus of local leaders,” he says.
The biggest attraction to the area, Freeze acknowledges, is the lake and the natural resources. “We probably take for granted locally that we sit amongst the national park. It is interwoven in our communities and it’s not like you’re entering Yellowstone. It’s harder to identify points of entry, but I think from an economic development standpoint there could be opportunities there. It’s important the local municipalities connect with the national park to work out a way to benefit everybody,” says Freeze. For over a century the steel industry has been calling this area home, and in Burns Harbor they do as well. Freeze says, “Obviously when talking about economic development in Porter County, one business that doesn’t get discussed a lot, because they keep behind a veil, is Arcellor Mittal. They are an economic driver, so are there support industries that we can attract that are consistent with what we’ve laid out in our economic plan, such as advisors or consulting firms that may have lower impact on the environment that can still benefit and help the community. That’s something we have to really examine and try to benefit from as well. Since 77% of our tax base is Arcelor Mittal, one of the goals we have on the Burns Harbor Council is dealing with this challenge. When you have a property that big it’s really tough.”
But Burns Harbor has been able to diversify its community in the past decade. Freeze says, “Burns Harbor is growing as a place that people want to live. We have a number of platted single-family lots in Trail Creek, Corlins Landing, the Village of Burns Harbor, and Traditions and they are all great neighborhoods. Traditions has built ten apartment buildings and they are full. They have pulled permits for seven more buildings and it won’t surprise me if there is a waiting list already. There was reluctance at first to an apartment development going in, but it has been a painless project and it has gone very well. It’s a great project for the area and it shows you can have an apartment building that is high quality and it is a green development so it is environmentally positive.”
Chesterton Town Manager Bernie Doyle says that the town has been focusing on many of the same projects that they have been working on over the past few years, such as revitalizing the downtown, growing the medical sector, and developing the 40 corridor. “The smart growth concept has not changed and we still equate economic development to quality of life. Quality of life, although somewhat subjective, in order to be achieved must offer an area with a quality school system, low crime, and an engaged community with a common history and purpose,” says Doyle. This is the philosophy and over-arching ideal that guides town planners and administrators when considering new projects.
Doyle acknowledges that Urschel Labs’ move to Chesterton “is the most significant thing to happen in Chesterton probably since he railroads came through,” but he also notes a second development the town acquired in recent months. “We have, secured a public-private partnership with Superior Ambulance that will provide our residents with quality choices for emergency healthcare under their advanced life support options,” he says.
Doyle says that this quality of life is found in Chesterton which attracts business and residents alike. “If there’s one word that sums up Chesterton to me it’s family. We understand that quality of life as it relates to economic development has as its core family. A community without that has no soul and no direction, no purpose,” he says.