Lake County is a diverse workplace and playground

2011-02-27T00:00:00Z 2011-02-28T00:11:03Z Lake County is a diverse workplace and playgroundBy Bill Dolan, (219) 662-5328
February 27, 2011 12:00 am  • 

Lake County has a broad enough expanse to contain the blast furnaces of Gary Works, the bayous of the Grand Kankakee Marsh, the cat crackers of BP Whiting Refinery and the gaming floors of Hammond's Horseshoe Casino.

Lake County has a population of more than 494,000 as diverse 47 distinct ethnic groups who made their way here from Europe and  South America and the Caribbean to find work in its factories.

Its industrial silhouette still says a lot about this county's reputation as an economic driver for the state.

BP, the largest refinery in the Midwest, has the capacity to process more than 400,000 barrels of raw crude per day into millions of gallons of transportation fuel and other distillates, according to the company's website.

Mark Maassel, president and chief executive of the Northwest Indiana Forum, said BP's $3.8 billion modernization project is moving steadily forward.

"They are marking great progress. It's a strong source of construction throughout this entire economic downturn," Maassel said.

ArcelorMittal's Indiana Harbor is the largest steel making complex in North America with raw steel making capacity of 10 million tons annually, according to the company's website. The company recently broke ground for a $63 million project to make North America's largest blast furnace, No. 7, more energy efficient.

Gary Works, U.S. Steel's largest manufacturing plant, features primary steel making and finishing facilities, with an annual raw steel making capability of 7.5 million net tons. Gary Works also operates three coke batteries, with annual production capability of 1.3 million net tons, according to the U.S. Steel website.

Maassel said U.S. Steel's plan to build coke substitute production modules "is a very strong commitment for a $200 million project at the Gary Works rather than in Alabama."

Heavy metal remains the backbone of Lake County's economy, which is why the recent economic recession struck so hard in Northwest Indiana, where the unemployment rate shot to 11 percent in the early part of 2010 and home foreclosures were at record levels.

Nevertheless, Maassel said he is optimistic.

"I do see increasing employment in 2011. More jobs and people filling those jobs. Last year was certainly better than 2009 and I think 2011 will be better still. We aren't back to record levels of production, but we are working our way toward that.

"We need a recovery of the consumer segment and the need to replace durable goods, washing machines and cars. They are all gradually coming back," he said.

Maassel said  the transportation and distribution sectors should see a resurgence as well "as we move products, equipment and consumer goods around this region and the nation."

Lake's highways radiate east, west and south of its commanding position on Lake Michigan's south shore, making it a hub of transportation for the Midwest.

"We are deeply tied to the Chicago economy. Northwest Indiana is reflective of what makes Chicago so strong in the intense diversity of economic drivers," he said.

The Ameristar Casino and Hotel in East Chicago, the Horseshoe Casino in Hammond and the Majestic Star Hotel and Casinos in Gary, generated more than $330 million in taxes and fees by attracting nearly 11.7 million customers. They continue to employ more than 5,000, according to the Indiana Gaming Commission website.

The county park system serving residents of its 19 communities features a dozen facilities and natural areas including the Grand Kankakee Marsh, more than 2,000 acres of dense woods growing around the remnants of old Kankakee River channels.

The county also is home to these institutions of higher education: Calumet College of St. Joseph of Whiting, Hyles-Anderson College of Schererville, Indiana University Northwest of Gary, Ivy Tech Northwest of Gary, Kaplan College of Hammond and Merrillville, Purdue University Calumet of Hammond and University of Phoenix of Merrillville.

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