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After a number of calls inquiring about available event space, the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority is shifting the focus of the W.F. Wellman Exhibit Hall in the Indiana Welcome Center this year to hosting events like fundraising galas and the recent Fetching Market.

The gallery just off the Borman Expressway in Hammond will still host the popular annual "A Christmas Story" exhibition and a few other exhibits, but is being opened up for rentals by groups scrambling to find a new event venue this year.

It's one of a number of venues that's stepping up to fill the void created by the closure of the Radisson at Star Plaza in Merrillville, which had 30,000 square feet of meeting space and was widely considered Northwest Indiana's premiere gathering spot. The hotel near the interchange of U.S. 30 and Interstate 65 is now fenced off and slated for demolition.

White Lodging will build a new hotel that will have between 16,000 square feet and 20,000 square feet for conferences, weddings, chamber of commerce galas and other events. But it won't be open until 2018, leaving organizations scrambling to find new venues for their events.

LaPorte County Convention & Visitors Bureau sales manager Rick Wright said more than eight conferences formerly held at the Radisson have moved to the Stardust Event Center at the Blue Chip Casino, in Michigan City. South Shore Arts Executive Director John M. Cain said more groups were booking events at The Center for Visual and Performing Arts in Munster.

One of the biggest beneficiaries may be the Avalon Manor on U.S. 30 in Hobart, which is only about 2.5 miles east of where the Radisson stood. It's a 16,500-square-foot facility that can host events ranging from 20 people to around 1,100.

"The Radisson had an upstairs and a downstairs, but our ballrooms actually had a comparable size," General Manager Katie Kucharski said. "We're one of the largest banquet halls in the area. We're a mile and a half from I-65, and we're convenient to Hammond, Munster and Porter County."

The Crossroads Chamber of Commerce, the American Heart Association and other groups have moved events like the annual Go Red fundraiser from the Radisson to Avalon Manor, in some cases signing multi-year contracts. Kucharski estimates at least 10 to 20 annual events that normally took place at the Radisson will now be held at Avalon Manor. That doesn't include weddings.

"It's been ongoing," she said. "We're still getting calls from some clients of the Radisson who are still in the research phase, so more bookings should probably be taking place at banquet halls for the next few months. People want their dates, so they book at least a few months out. We haven't had to turn anyone away. People have been flexible if we've had to find another date."

The SSCVA is making adjustments so the W.F. Wellman Exhibit Hall is available for more events. The gallery typically hosts an array of exhibitions, including on the Indiana Bicentennial, the Region's role in the Civil War, NASA, and vintage cars.

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Its biggest attraction is the annual "A Christmas Story Comes Home" exhibit, which pays homage to Hammond native's Jean Shepherd's beloved holiday classic and features department store window displays from Boston that depict scenes from the movie. The "A Christmas Story" show at the Indiana Welcome Center posted its highest-ever attendance of 30,700 in 2016, and the gift shop raked in a record $85,067 from the exhibit.

The W.F. Wellman Exhibit Hall will continue to have a scaled back exhibits schedule so it can be used more as an event space until the hotel replacing the Radisson at Star Plaza opens its conference space or Lake County builds a convention center, South Shore CVA President and CEO Speros Batistatos said.

"In lieu of the Radisson closing, we reevaluated, responding to interest and inquiries from the community," he said. "We're going to pause and look at hosting events for the next couple of years until there's additional space, whether that's a White Lodging product or a convention center that would serve the community."

The Indiana Welcome Center typically hosts six large exhibits a year for one or two months at a time, but has cut back to just four this year, spokeswoman Erika Dahl said. The first exhibition will be CHAIRish the Children Exhibit, which will run from March 27 through April 26, to raise awareness about child abuse prevention and raise funds for Prevent Child Abuse Lake County. The exhibition hall will also host a South Shore Poster Exhibit in May and a South Shore Arts Association Exhibit in August, but more of the calendar is being freed up so it can be rented out for gatherings.

Batistatos said the South Shore CVA can easily bring in tables, chairs and linens for any kind of event.

"The phone's been ringing," he said. "We've been approached by not-for-profits and others. We're responding to the needs of the community, and helping to alleviate the space crunch there will be until there's a new hotel or convention center."

The W.F. Wellman Exhibit Hall recently hosted the popular Fetching Market for the first time, and will also host World Civility Day, a Tourism Week luncheon, the Albert's MS Auction and an Explore the South Shore expo this year.

"We're a fraction of the size of the Radisson ballrooms, but we're focusing on smaller events," Batistatos said. "It's going to be a difficult time for a couple of years, and we're being flexible to the demand in the community."

For more information, call (219) 989-7770 or visit www.southshorecva.com.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.