The recent approval by Porter County officials of a feasibility study to analyze possible renovations to the county's Expo Center and fairgrounds signals an important opportunity that tourism officials from the entire region should grasp.
As the Porter County Board of Commissioners and Indiana Dunes tourism officials seek the $83,500 for the study — and then begin to craft the parameters — they must be careful to include the long-term tourism plans of neighboring Lake and LaPorte counties. As it stands now, the feasibility study would explore redeveloping the Expo Center and fairgrounds into a major entertainment, educational and activity-based complex.
Such a facility might very well be worth exploring in what should be the entire region's quest to attract more visitors — and the dollars they spend — through tourism and convention attractions and assets. But the operative phrase here is "the entire region's quest." Too many local initiatives are woefully shortsighted, pursuing projects with only one town, one city or one county in mind. Let's just make sure the study is funded by local entities and not state or federal agencies.
When tens of thousands of dollars are being considered for a feasibility study — and potentially millions more for renovations or new facilities — cooperation and communication with nearby, similarly focused agencies are the only means to the biggest bang for the collective buck. Let's make sure the Porter County study — when funded — includes discussions of a possible convention center in Lake County, something the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority has been discussing.
Porter and LaPorte counties already belong to the same Northern Indiana tourism council, while the South Shore CVA works with people planning to visit throughout the region. So while the agencies themselves sometimes butt heads, the tourists see Northwest Indiana as a single market.
A model — on a smaller scale — already exists for inter-cooperation in the region's tourism offerings. The South Shore Civil War Memorial Trail — an initiative to restore the grave sites and create a guide to the lives and local historical sites of the hundreds of Lake and Porter County men who served in the Civil War — already is working across county, municipal and agency lines in Northwest Indiana. The South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, Calumet Region Civil War Preservation Project, region museums, libraries and historical societies and some municipal agencies from both Lake and Porter counties have cooperated to make this initiative a success.
The result of this initiative has been the replacement of more than 80 worn, broken or missing Civil War veteran grave stones with new granite markers through a federal government program; thousands of dollars in grants and donations garnered for new markers, museum exhibits and other assets; a website documenting the region's many Civil War assets; and a plethora of volunteerism from the community to make it all happen. These efforts will culminate in April with the month-long "Region United, Nation Divided: The South Shore in the Civil War" expo at the Indiana Welcome Center in Hammond.
The title of the exhibit harkens back to the 1861-1865 conflict, when region men by the hundreds united together in Union Army companies from Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties in a common purpose to preserve the Union and ultimately end slavery.
We can't think of a better model or metaphor of cooperation and unity for the betterment of the region's tourism industry — or any other initiative.