When asked to report on the success of economic development efforts in Northwest Indiana, leaders in the field sometimes find it hard to talk, but it’s not because the news is bad.

Quite the contrary. They have trouble speaking because they are smiling so much. Things are going very well in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties, and the economic development pros expect those smiles to linger through at least the coming year.

Lake County forecast

Karen Lauerman, president and CEO of the Lake County Economic Alliance, said the success of the LCEA in recent years has been enhanced by the Lake County Board of Commissioners providing a sustainable funding source for the agency’s activities “ensuring Lake County and its 19 communities are star players in the highly competitive global market for years to come.”

Delivering the message that Lake County is business friendly in its marketing efforts, the LCEA had a successful 2019 and, with 70 projects still in the pipeline, Lauerman and Don Koliboski, LCEA vice president for development, said they expect more of the same in 2020.

“Lake County’s current target sectors include an emphasis on food processing and distribution, advanced manufacturing, logistics and warehousing, e-commerce, call and data centers,” Koliboski said. “There also is heavy interest in health care/medical, office and hospitality to compliment residential development.”

Among the leading employers in Lake County in 2019 were health care, retail and hospitality, education and manufacturing. Small companies with up to nine employees made up 79 percent of the businesses while those with 20 or more accounted for 11 percent.

The LCEA is working within the 15 Opportunity Zones in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago to market sites for development, such as the former Stateline Generating Facility, Buffington Harbor and the DuPont/Chemours Resource Conservation and Recovery Act sites.

This year, the county received approval from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for the remediation and development of the East Chicago Logistics Center. Plans include $26 million for remediation of 284 acres, donation of natural areas to The Nature Conservancy, a $100 million investment in a three million square foot facility with an initial one million square foot speculative building expected to create 3,000 full-time jobs.

Following the rapid leasing of the first Becknell Industrial speculative building in Merrillville, the company announced plans for a new 284,000-square-foot speculative building to meet the demand for Class A space on the growing Interstate 65 corridor, Lauerman said. Near the intersection of I-65 and Ind. 2, specialty food producer Life Spice announced plans to expand into Lowell with a 50,000-square-foot build-to-suit addition with room to expand further.

Another food processing company, Restaurant Depot, is coming to Griffith with a $10 million facility expected to create 45 distribution jobs. Developer ATG is opening a new office building just off the expressway in Hammond, and the city recently approved incentives for the expansion of Swanel Beverage. Midland Metals is investing $7 million in the former Lear complex that will create 135 jobs.

Retail, hospitality and service sector businesses are popping up in Schererville’s U.S. 30 and Indianapolis Boulevard area, while Munster announced plans for Maple Leaf Crossing. Crown Point is getting a new orthopedic center and a Hampton Inn, and construction is underway in Dyer on a medical/office building. The biggest project will be the $400 million Hard Rock Casino in Gary.

“LCEA believes the U.S. and local industrial sector shows signs of strength leading into 2020, given the expansion of e-commerce, low vacancy rates and desire to build on spec to add available inventory,” Lauerman said. “The research is telling us there is plenty of investment capital waiting to be utilized.

“Each day LCEA responds to inquiries from businesses wanting to move to Lake County and Indiana to refine their supply chain strategies, expand operations, reach customers more quickly, tap into logistics-rich e-commerce locations or improve overall efficiencies and bottom lines. We don’t see that changing in the next few years.”

Next year is likely to bring change to the broader vision of mixed use, where retail, lifestyle, hotel, medical, virtual reality and gaming, dining and entertainment converge to occupy vacant space once occupied by large anchor stores, she added.

Porter County forecast

Valparaiso continues to see a lot of residential construction, Rex Richards, president of the Greater Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce, said. Developments such as Hawthorne North on the city’s north side and Flat Rock behind Hayes Leonard School on the south are bringing interest to the periphery.

Close to the downtown is St. Paul Square, with 48 townhomes planned within two blocks of the downtown to the north and Vale View, a combination residential and commercial project on Brown Street just south of the downtown. The biggest housing project the city has seen in many years is the Brooks at Vale Park, which is platted for 300 homes and will result in the completion of Vale Park Road through to Froberg Road in a joint project with the city.

The redevelopment of the former Anco industrial site into a distillery and dining complex on South Campbell Street is proposed. It would extend the downtown south of the railroad tracks. Also, more downtown apartments are on the drawing board.

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Holladay Properties is putting up two buildings on Ind. 49 next to Indiana Beverage. The buildings will be 60,000 and 100,000 square feet, and Richards said one tenant already has been found for the first building. He said Northwest Indiana has a shortage of such space for businesses looking to relocate here or expand.

Finally, Porter Hospital, St. Mary Medical Center and Franciscan Health System all are planning expansion of their facilities in the Valparaiso area.

They have plenty to smile about in Portage as well.

“Portage has had a very good year,” John Harrison, Portage’s economic development director said. “Growth continues on the north side of the city. Covanta Environmental is adding a new building and Powersource Transportation recently completed its new building in Ameriplex. Also, Dollar General completed its building along highway 20.

“We continue to have strong discussions with potential developers for new development along U.S. 6 and look forward to seeing U.S. 6 grow,” Harrison said. “Housing continues to be strong, with 97 permits pulled to date, putting Portage on pace for over 100 new housing permits. It looks like that will continue for the foreseeable future.

"Porter County’s government building is nearing completion and will feature a new assessor’s office, trustee’s office and a local food pantry. The north side of the city continues to grow. Domino’s Pizza and Dunkin Donuts opened new locations recently on Crisman Road, and Great Lakes Peterbilt also completed a $2 million investment with new bays at their location on Southport Road."

The Promenade at Founders Square is completed. Its nine buildings have retail on the lower level and apartments above. This new complex has residential occupancy of 95% and retail holding at 97%. The continued vision of Founders Square includes additional amenities for events and developments that create a cohesive space between the square, playground and amphitheater.

“Portage’s forecast is for continued growth,” Harrison said. “We are having discussions with multiple developers. The reclaimed U.S. Steel Training Center was transformed recently into an open-air pavilion available for events. It is surrounded by 35 acres of preserved land located near our Lakefront Park.”

LaPorte County forecast

Bert Cook, executive director of the LaPorte Economic Advancement Partnership, said, “The vast majority of growth in our industrial market this year has been expansion of existing manufacturers and investments in real property.”

Among the projects started or completed this year was the $1 million expansion by HRR Enterprises and the $4.5 million new facility by KT Soap in the Thomas Rose Industrial Park. The industrial park also made economic development news when it was purchased by Link Properties, of Chicago, which is investing in improvements there.

Construction of the two new hospitals in LaPorte is in full swing. The new LaPorte Hospital is under roof and work will continue through the coming year while Beacon and Franciscan Health have partnered on a smaller scale hospital costing $25 million that is expected to open in 2020. Another medical building is under construction by Holladay Properites. It is 11,500 square feet and is a $3.3 million project, Cook said.

Next to the medical building is the $35 million Flaherty and Collins residential development of 200 high end units, which Cook said are popular with young families and older people. Investment in the downtown continued with several buildings being redone.

“We’ve been in growth mode for a long time, and I don’t expect that to change,” he said. “We are seeing a strong residential market, which has been a weakness in the city historically. Our housing stock is old and there’s not a lot coming on line. We need more high, middle and lower end homes and rentals. We have a lot of projects in the fire, but nothing is finalized."

Heather Ennis, president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Forum, said the Forum has focused on acting on the strategic plan it published, "Ignite: Northwest Indiana’s Strategy for Economic Transformation."

“With the support of the Indiana Economic Development Corp., we have traveled to over 20 locations and met with over 200 companies, site selectors and brokers, telling them the story of Northwest Indiana” Ennis said. “Activity continues to be strong for both new investment and expansion of existing businesses.”

The Forum also is working to enhance its business retention and expansion efforts, and Ennis cited such successes during the year as Dollar General’s move into a distribution center in Westville, a new foreign district investment by Marbach, getting permitting for a 520-acre food distribution center at Fair Oaks, and the relocation of Midland Metals from Chicago to Hammond.

“For 2020, we are looking at even deeper engagement with our target sector industries as well as working with the local economic development organizations on redevelopment and product assembly,” she said.

No wonder they are all smiling.