Lake Street, the main commercial drag of Gary's lakefront Miller neighborhood, remains torn up and closed off as the first phase of a $20 million road project that was supposed to end in September will stretch on until December.
It's been rough for businesses like Miller Bakery Cafe, Thumbs Up Bar, Adele’s Beach Boutique, Lake Street Gallery, Vibrations Juice Bar, and Tacos and Tequila. Business has fallen off 80% this year at the Indie Indie Bang Bang boutique, which moved from Chicago to the artsy beach community.
“I haven’t had a customer in three days," Vogue Cleaners owner Jay Uha said. "This is really affecting my business; can’t wait for this to be over.”
Gary is rebuilding and redesigning Lake Street from the South Shore Line station to Miller Beach, adding wider sidewalks, parallel parking spaces, a beautified streetscape with new trees and native plantings, and bike lanes, all in hope of drawing more visitors from Chicago who can take the train and then bike to the beach or the the Paul H. Douglas Center, which is the western visitor's center for the Indiana Dunes National Park.
The work will continue through 2020.
"The Lake Street construction is a very important project for our neighborhood despite the mess we currently have," Miller Beach Tourism President Peggy Blackwell said. "Revitalization takes time and work."
Blackwell describes the commercial strip as "one of the most vibrant areas of the city of Gary with a variety of unique restaurants, boutiques, bars, vintage shops and art galleries."
But traffic and commerce have plunged significantly since Lake Street was blocked off between Miller Avenue and 3rd Avenue for reconstruction this fall. Businesses in the Miller district's historic downtown are struggling to stay afloat, looking to communicate that they are still open for business, continuing to host First Friday events and even offering "pardon our dust" specials. Indie Indie Bang Bang plans to clear out the parking lot behind its building this weekend to encourage more people to park there, and has reached an agreement with the nearby St. Mary of the Lake Catholic church to let its customers park there.
“The shops are doing their best to make it as easy as possible for our customers; we're making lemonade out of lemons,” said Christopher Jaroscak, co-owner of Indie Indie Bang Bang. “We have plenty of new stock for the fall. Come and check us out, and patronize all of the Shops on Lake Street.”
Gary tore down the Ming Ling Chinese restaurant to create a new surface parking lot in the commercial district. Miller Pizza has been adding fliers on every takeout and delivery box with a detour map to highlight available parking and show people how to get around.
"A driving loop has been created and well-marked around the businesses clustered on Lake Street, making access to the stores and restaurants a little confusing," owner Gary Goldberg said. "But it only adds minutes to the trip."
Miller merchants could use more public support at this difficult time, but the short-term pain should result in long-term gain, Blackwell said.
“As the nearest beach town to Chicago, Miller Beach is uniquely positioned as the western gateway to the national park," Blackwell said. "The double-tracking project on the South Shore railroad will also add shorter commute times into Chicago and improved bicycle access to the train. This project is going to make our downtown so much more pedestrian and bike-friendly. In the meantime, we want everyone to support our small businesses, they’re the backbone of our community."