Skeptics said it would never work.
They said a mall should be built at the fringes of Michigan City, not downtown. They said the Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets ought to be near all the interstate traffic.
"They said it wouldn't last two years," said Lloyd Madaus, operations director for Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets, who helped build it for Tonn and Blank Construction in 1987. "They said it was foolish."
Now the outdoor outlet mall at 601 Wabash St. draws an estimated 1 million visitors a year to its 120 stores. It's one of the most popular shopping destinations in Northwest Indiana, and it's considered part of Michigan City's triangle of tourist attractions along with the lakefront and the Blue Chip Casino, Hotel and Spa.
Lighthouse is celebrating its 30th anniversary.
Mayor Ron Meer said the city is pleased with the successful 30-year commitment.
"They are a very large draw to our community from throughout the United States and foreign countries," Meer said. "As mayor, I am extremely pleased with Lighthouse Outlets' continued success in Michigan City. They give Michigan City great exposure to the Chicago region and the Midwest region while providing hundreds of retail jobs."
The mall, which was designed to resemble a seaside village because of its proximity to Lake Michigan, was built on land once occupied by the long-defunct Pullman railroad car company. Construction began in the fall of 1986, and the main court opened in May of 1987.
The Lighthouse Place Premium Outlets, now owned by Indianapolis-based Simon Property Group, was a hit within a month or so of opening, Madaus said.
"It brings thousands of people, especially in the summertime and around Christmas," he said. "It has helped the downtown come back like it used to be in the last four or five years. When the factories closed a lot of people went to work in the stores."
Though many stores have come and gone over the years, some have been there for 25 to 30 years, such as Polo, Brooks Brothers and Ann Taylor Lofts. They occupy wood stick buildings meant to evoke a quaint lakeshore village.
At the time it was constructed, enclosed malls were all the vogue. Lighthouse Place may have been ahead of its time, since all the lifestyle centers being built today are open-air malls, Madaus said.
Even as the retail sector has struggled of late, people still flock to Lighhouse's outlet stores, such as Nike, Columbia, Northface, Vera Bradley, and OshKosh B'gosh.
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"It's a great summertime attraction," Madaus said. "It's a big draw from Northwest Indiana, southern Michigan and Chicagoans who have beach houses up and down the lakeshore. They stop by when headed to the beach house or when coming back."
Many swing by when visiting nearby Washington Park, with its Lake Michigan beaches. In fact, when the weather abruptly changes, as it is wont to do in Indiana, shoppers in swimsuits swing by to grab sweatshirts.
It helps that they're within walking distance of each other, said Linda Simmons, the LaPorte County Convention and Visitors Bureau marketing director.
"It's a huge tourist attraction with a lot of big brand names," she said. "People stop there after a day at the beach. You see license plates from Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan."
Blue Chip Casino references the outlet mall in its convention marketing materials, and it helps bring visitors to other Michigan City attractions such as the Washington Park Zoo, the Old Lighthouse Museum and the Uptown Arts District, Simmons said.
"It has stores you'd otherwise have to go to Chicago or Indianapolis for," Simmons said. "It's often packed because it's got a lot of great stores and excellent shopping."
The Lighthouse Place mall has become a staple of Region life where memories have been made
Valparaiso residents Marie and John Borman went there last year to grab some Goldfish Crackers from Pepperidge Farm and some last-minute things for the baby room while she was pregnant, and she started to have contractions. Only she didn't initially realize it until they headed off to dinner.
"We went the hospital and the nurse was about to check how far I was dialated, my water broke. Elizabeth wasn't due for another week so that's why we didn't think the pains were contractions," Marie Borman said. "So our Elizabeth was born last year on April 23. We have been back to Lighthouse for baby clothes and toys several times."
The mall also has helped put Michigan City on the map nationally.
Whenever Madaus travels to places like South Carolina and mentions he's from Michigan City, people bring up Lighthouse Place.
Given its draw, he thinks it has a bright future.
"It's older but it still looks green and clean," he said. "It looks beautiful with the snow in the wintertime. It's still going strong. Hopefully, it's here another 20 years. I can't see it ever leaving."