With more than 30,000 square feet of meeting space, the Radisson at Star Plaza Hotel draws out-of-towners to events such as the Salvation Army Central Regional Meeting, Steel Pen Writer's Consortium, and Ramencon anime convention.
But the closure of the nearly half-century-old, 343-room hotel will leave a big void when it closes in January so owner White Lodging can build a new, upscale hotel on the site. The new hotel won't come online until late 2018, and the nearly two-year hole in the market should boost business at other hotels and banquet halls that could scoop up events like the Franciscan Alliance Gala, Dancing with the Local Stars, the Big Sell, and the Purdue Alumni Club Coaches Caravan.
Visitors will have to find somewhere else to stay over the next two years, but Merrillville ultimately will end up with the same number of hotel rooms – about 2,100, Ward 6 Town Councilman Shawn Pettit said.
White Lodging will build a new six-story hotel with 214 rooms, and the Merrillville Plan Commission just approved a new three- or four-story Holiday Inn Express with 100 rooms on the west side of Mississippi Street by 85th Street.
"With the units we're losing at the Radisson, we're picking that up with the two new hotels," Pettit said.
"We're losing an iconic structure, but we're gaining something in new investment. It's going to mean construction jobs, and that will be very big for the building trades. We're a pro-union town, and we want good-paying contractors developing this site."
The adjacent Star Plaza Theatre and the Radisson at the Star Plaza helped turn cornfields into one of the most bustling commercial areas in Northwest Indiana. The theater also is being demolished to make way for the new hotel, hosting its last show in April. It will not be rebuilt, White Lodging announced Tuesday.
Both the Star Plaza Theatre and the Radisson lure customers to nearby restaurants, which run the full spectrum from fast food to fine dining.
"They do bring a lot of traffic," said Jerry Chang, manager of House of Kobe. "They are some of the biggest attractions around this area. It's somewhat like a convention center with a lot of activities, theater and stuff going on. It's kind of sad. It's not good to lose Star Plaza."
Catch 22 Grill and Bar owner Jason Evans said he thought the redevelopment project would ultimately be good for business, since new construction and a quality hotel brand would improve the community's image. The Star Plaza, which stages about 100 shows a year, can boost business, but it depends on who is performing.
"A lot of people came out when it was Bobby Knight but Alice Cooper not so much," he said. "Some fans come out for dinner and a couple cocktails, but others might have a couple beers at the house."
Conferences and conventions at the Radisson and the future hotel are more critical to business for local restaurants, Evans said.
"If you're at a convention, say for NIPSCO, when you get a break, you're going to leave the hotel and go check out a restaurant," he said. "If you're going to a show, you're going to spend three hours at the show, and you won't necessarily go out before or after."
The South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority is working to assess the full economic impact as it scrambles to save conventions, including a Growing in Faith gathering it worked hard to schedule at the Radisson at Star Plaza, SSCVA President and CEO Speros Batistatos said. A risk is that conventions, which are typically held annually, might relocate to another city and stay there for good.
"This is devastating in the short-term," he said. "Meetings we worked to bring to the community will be replaced, and my fear is they may or may not return. This takes us out of the rotation."
The Radisson at Star Plaza had been the biggest, most dominant player for conferences in Northwest Indiana, Batistatos said. He plans to step up efforts to find a private investor and a municipal government to build a new convention center, which he's long lobbied for but which he said now was urgently needed to replace the Star Plaza and the Radisson at Star Plaza.
"It would be a multi-use facility that could host concerts," he said. "It could host a convention one weekend, and an antique show the next. The flexibility is a big part of it."
Batistatos said the Northwest Indiana hotel market has long needed a better upscale hotel like the one White Lodging is planning, but that the closure of the Radisson would have a ripple effect that could result in the loss of $5 million to $7 million in hotel rental revenue a year for the next two years.
"We're going to look at everything and anything to keep that business in this market," he said.
"This is not just a hotel closing. It's going to affect Asparagus, Gino's Steakhouse and Chicago Pizza. The ripples from this should be more concerning for people. It creates a huge void. We hope this will create an 'aha' moment for people to realize the urgency of a new convention center."