PORTAGE | As U.S. 20 cuts across the northern part of the city, its identity is somewhat muddled.
At the intersection with Ind. 249, it seems to serve the travelers.
To the east, light industry is developing on lots set back from the highway.
To the west, the highway's purpose is lost with a mix of old motels, mobile home parks, trucking firms and stretches of vacant land.
Portage officials are working to further define the corridor's future. The city's Redevelopment Commission last year hired a group of consultants to develop a comprehensive U.S. 20 corridor study to guide future development along the corridor.
"It is our last corridor, and we're ready to do it," said A.J. Monroe, director of public works. "With all the others (U.S. 6, Willowcreek Road, Ind. 249, Central Avenue, U.S. 12 corridors) there was a clearer path to development."
Portage isn't the only municipality to try to define the future of U.S. 20.
In 2008, the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission completed a Porter County U.S. 12/20 Transportation Corridor Plan. That plan recommended U.S. 20 receive a major upgrade, saying the "corridor is a vital element in the transportation system from local, regional and state perspectives. It needs to continue to provide the level of service, safety and mobility it was envisioned to provide."
Burns Harbor, to Portage's east, and Gary, its western neighbor, along with other communities that share what was originally built as the Dunes Relief Highway, are working to redevelop and redefine their sections of the corridor.
"The town is somewhat split on the idea that U.S. 20 can change," said Burns Harbor Town Councilman Jeff Freeze.
His community completed a comprehensive plan in 2009.
"Some believe it is a heavy haul highway, and it will stay that way," he said, adding others, including himself, believe it can remain a heavy haul highway, but work can be done to change the character of at least a portion of the highway.
Burns Harbor's downtown has been designated the northwest intersection of U.S. 20 and Ind. 149. That area, said Freeze, is envisioned to have different building standards to attract retail, possibly an anchor grocery store with complementary retail development.
"We'd like to have a developer come in and look at it as a whole," said Freeze, adding the town of about 1,100 doesn't have the roof tops to attract retailers nor does it have the staff to accomplish plans on its own.
"Communities are beginning to recognize the economic, social and environmental benefits of green designs and incorporating them into their broader planning and redevelopment strategies.
The city of Gary is no different. Currently, a brownfield development team is meeting to explore expansion opportunities to build green infrastructures in the Emerson area along Fifth Avenue as well areas in the Miller section adjacent to U.S. 20. More details will be shared this spring, said Chelsea Whittington, Gary's director of communications.
Property owner Brian Gurgon said he'd like to see Gary and Portage work together to develop the area between Ind. 51 to approximately Dombey Road as a tourist service center, offering parks and parking and services to those who visit the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
Gurgon, who owns about 1.5 acres and operated a trucking dispatch business for many years, said including the area from Ind. 51 east would give visitors two stopping off points from the nearby intersections.
"I could see businesses popping up as you go east to the national park. You could catch so many people there," Gurgon said.
Monroe agrees that neighboring municipalities need to be cognizant of what each other are doing in redeveloping the highway, but he sees a practical approach in Portage's plans.
"It will be a realistic, pragmatic approach to development along the corridor," Monroe said.
Monroe expects Portage's study to be completed in late summer, but the city already has captured "low-hanging fruit" in the redevelopment effort.
The Redevelopment Commission recently completed purchasing the former Don's Motel and Castaway Motel. Both will be demolished and the property cleaned up by the city.