HAMMOND — Generations of Region residents shopped at Woodmar Mall in Hammond, visiting stores like J.J. Newberry, Foot Locker and Woodmar Records.
Many played arcade games or ate Schoop's in the neon-lit food court of the mall at Indianapolis Boulevard and 165th Street, which was one of Northwest Indiana's first to open back in 1954. The mall was razed in 2006 after years of slow decline, and the remaining three-story Carson's department store came down in 2018 after that chain — like so many other brick-and-mortar retailers in an age of one-click shopping — went bankrupt.
Hammond adjusted to the loss of the Victor Gruen-designed mall, which helped usher in the urbanization of Lake County during the 1950s, by replacing it with its Sportsplex, a 135,000-square-foot, $18 million athletic complex anchoring the Woodmar neighborhood. The Hammond Sportsplex has drawn visitors from traveling youth sports leagues with its basketball, volleyball and indoor soccer courts, as well as an elevated walking track and programming for the community.
The Hammond Sportsplex, which was especially popular with Illinois athletes during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic last year, is generating more revenue than the city expected.
"It's bringing in more than $1 million in revenue a year," Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said at the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority board meeting at the Sportsplex Thursday. "We're getting $250,000 a year from concession stand sales alone."
The facility has proved so successful that Hammond is looking at expanding it after just a few years. Hammond is looking at building an addition on the grassy area on the south side of the property to allow for more volleyball courts, including for college volleyball.
"The Sportsplex is completely overfilled after just a few years," McDermott said. "The basketball and volleyball make most of the money, but the soccer side does well as well."
McDermott initially considered turning the soccer fields into volleyball courts, especially since the roof there was high enough for college volleyball players to play without any impediment.
But he reconsidered after getting feedback from the community.
"The business person in me was going to sacrifice soccer since volleyball and basketball were the most lucrative," he said. "We were going to focus on volleyball and basketball instead of three sports simultaneously. But I talked to people and there was pushback. Hammond is a city that loves its soccer. It wouldn't look great to take that away from the community."
McDermott said the plans were still in the early stages and details like the square footage of the addition or the number of additional courts have not yet been determined.
The hope is that adding more volleyball courts will let Hammond host more volleyball tournaments, including potentially big tournaments for Midwestern colleges.
SSCVA Board Member Brent Brashier, a co-owner and chief barbecue officer of the Doc's Smokehouse chain, said it sounded like a good economic development approach.
"We have a restaurant in Milwaukee by the NBA stadium and convention center," he said. "Over the last five years, business has always benefitted on game day and during conventions."
Businesses in the Woodmar neighborhood benefits when families accompany their student-athletes to games and tournaments at the Sportsplex, McDermott said.
"When there's a big tournament in town and you go down the street to The Wheel restaurant it's always packed with families," he said. "This has been very good for businesses in the surrounding neighborhood."
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