WHITING | Years of preparation to establish Whiting as Lake County's premier lakefront destination community are paying off as many long-range plans are coming to fruition this year.
Mayor Joe Stahura, now beginning his ninth year as the city's top executive, first asked residents in 2004 how they envisioned Whiting's future.
Through a series of get-togethers, a consensus emerged that a majority of the city's 5,000 citizens wanted a vibrant downtown business district, improved neighborhood housing, and a friendlier, inviting park along the Lake Michigan shore.
With these goals in mind, Stahura, his economic development team and the Whiting Redevelopment Commission began executing strategic plans which were enhanced and accelerated by a $3.8 billion expansion of the BP Whiting Refinery on the city's east side.
"The amount of money was so staggering we were almost afraid to calculate what it meant for us," Stahura said.
Besides doubling the refinery's taxable assessed valuation, the expansion also is bringing a new office building for 500 BP workers and contractors which is currently under construction.
Space is at a premium along 119th Street downtown, with a boom in refurbished office space, retail shops and a dozen restaurants scheduled to be open by summer, all coordinated with the city.
"The mayor had a plan," said Economic Development Director Bob Kark, "And as opportunities presented themselves, you fit those opportunities into the plan."
Those opportunities included grant money -- some $31 million since 2004 -- for refurbishing old structures for resale, and incentives for business relocation and facade improvements.
"We want people not just to come to Whiting, but to enjoy their visit to Whiting," Kark said.
The new Oil City Stadium, downtown's eastern anchor, a home to high school and college baseball teams, earned Whiting the State Community Achievement Award from the Indiana Association of Cities and Towns.
Beyond downtown, the city has invested in residential improvements, including new lakefront homes along Center Street, nearly all of which have been sold, and single-site new construction in the neighborhoods as lots become available through demolition of century-old buildings.
The $43 million Lakefront Park upgrade is the largest public works project in Whiting history, with a renovated performing arts pavilion, two-tiered boardwalk along the shoreline, a new boat harbor and connections to hiking and biking trails to downtown Chicago.
Funded through the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority and industrial revenue, the renovated park, in combination with the 17-acre Whihala Beach to the west, provides the longest uninterrupted stretch of publicly accessible Lake Michigan shoreline in the county.
Whiting already receives international attention each year for its Pierogi Fest in July, and in April will host the three-day state historic preservation conference at the downtown Community Center built in 1923 by the Standard Oil Co.
"Our future is benchmarked and grounded in our history," Kark said. "When you see things actually happening, it's quite an accomplishment."