Porter County weathers poor economy

2011-03-06T00:00:00Z 2011-03-07T00:03:31Z Porter County weathers poor economyBy Bob Kasarda bob.kasarda@nwi.com, (219) 548-4345 nwitimes.com

VALPARAISO | Porter County Council President Dan Whitten is feeling pretty optimistic about the county's future, based in part on how well the area has come through the financially turbulent last few years.

The county's unemployment rate is among the lowest in the state, per capita spending is also low and officials have succeeded in keeping property taxes down for the past five years, said the at-large Democrat.

The county is also in the fortunate position of sitting on $161 million in principal and $10 million in interest from the sale of the county hospital, Whitten said.

"We can't ask for anything more," he said.

Porter County Commission President John Evans, R-North, offered his own reasons for optimism, including the construction under way on the new $225 million Porter hospital at the northwest corner of Ind. 49 and U.S. 6.

The 225-private room facility is predicted to create 600 construction jobs, with a payroll over a two-year period of between $60 million to $65 million. There also will be 126 permanent jobs created.

At 430,000 square feet, the new hospital will dwarf the current 250,000-square-foot facility. The emergency room will double in size, and the intensive care unit will be more than twice as large as the existing department.

While not yet complete, the new hospital is already attracting other investment to the area.

The Porter County Commissioners got the ball rolling last month when they approved the rezoning of 110 acres immediately west of the hospital site for a shared commercial, office and residential development going by the name of St. Andrews.

The Indiana Department of Transportation plans to pave the nearby stretch of U.S. 6 this summer from Ind. 149 east to Ind. 49, said Jim Pinkerton, media relations director for INDOT's LaPorte District.

The intersections at Meridian Road and County Road 200 West along this strip of U.S. 6 will be widened and left turn lanes will be added.

Evans is also excited about the county's massive effort to identify drainage projects to relieve ongoing flooding problems.

The commissioners were presented at the end of last year with a list of several hundred projects, the top 10 largest of which carry a price tag of as much as $20 million or more.

The County Council agreed last month to study ways of funding the work, which include up to $10 million in the area of Old South Haven alone.

The county is also working to bring improvements to the U.S. 6 strip through South Haven and to Lake Eliza to the south.

A consulting firm was recently hired to begin studying the strip of U.S. 6 in question with the goal of bringing greater continuity or identity to the area, according to county Redevelopment Commission member Dave Burris.

The Redevelopment Commission thought the timing for the work along U.S. 6 was appropriate, considering the state recently had widened the road and added sidewalks, Burris said.

The goal with Lake Eliza will focus on storm water drainage and road improvements, he said.

The hope for Lake Eliza is that some infrastructure improvements will attract the same type of positive changes that occurred in the lakes area just north of Valparaiso.

County Council Member Laura Blaney, D-at-large, said she and fellow council member Jim Polarek, R-4th, have began talking to county park officials about the potential of creating athletic fields in the south end of the county.

The only park site to the south is a small, half-acre plot surrounded by a chain link fence right on the Kankakee River at Dunn's Bridge, Polarek said.

Blaney said there are active baseball, softball and soccer leagues at the south end of the county that currently have to use athletic fields at one of the local schools.

Polarek said he would also like to see a private vendor offer canoe rental on the Kankakee River at the Dunn's Bridge area.

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