Officials in White County, Ind., broke ground on the Mid-America Commerce Park near Interstate 65 with great expectations in 1984 — and then for about 28 years the land stayed vacant.
That changed three years ago when Garmong Construction, of Terre Haute, responded to a request for proposals and started working on a partnership with county officials to get the park up and running.
One month ago, a 68,000-square-foot, energy-efficient shell building was completed, opening up the potential for job creation in the county of 25,000 that is best known for its wind farms and Indiana Beach resort.
"He told me your cornfields look like everyone else's cornfields, you need to put a building up," said White County Commissioner David Diener of the day he met Garmong Construction Vice President Dan Zuerner.
Diener and Zuerner told their story Tuesday at the Indiana Welcome Center, in Hammond, as part of the Northwest Indiana Forum's seminar on "Building to Meet Industrial Real Estate Needs in Northwest Indiana." Also serving on that panel was Kelly Disser, an executive vice president with NAI Hiffman, and Mike Micka, vice president of development at Holladay Properties.
Northwest Indiana Forum CEO Heather Ennis said the region is a place that truly lives up to Indiana's brand as "The Crossroads of America." But the region continues to lag behind when it comes to industrial buildings constructed on speculation and available to tenants or new owners on short notice.
An Under Construction Deliveries chart provided by Disser, of NAI Hiffman, shows that there are about 5 million square feet of industrial buildings deliverable or under construction in southeast Wisconsin this year; about 3 million square feet along the Interstate 55 corridor in Illinois; but less than 1 million square feet in Northwest Indiana.
"There are a number of projects we have been working on that looked at Northwest Indiana, but have opted to remain in Illinois," Disser said.
The consensus of developers on the panel was the lack of industrial space built on speculation continues to hold Northwest Indiana back, along with the inability of some localities to respond quickly to economic development prospects.
However, Northwest Indiana is beginning to catch some of the wave of development sweeping across the greater Chicago area market.
Becknell Industrial will break ground next week on a 163,000-square-foot industrial building at Hobart's Northwind Crossing. That will be built on speculation, which means no immediate tenant is lined up but the builder has confidence one can be found quickly.
The Becknell building at Northwind Crossing will be the largest speculative building attempted in Northwest Indiana since the recession of 2007 to 2009 halted all such projects.
And Garmong Construction recently concluded an agreement with the city of Gary to transform an 84-acre tract near Buffington Harbor into an industrial park, with the company pledging to develop a plan to build up to 500,000 square feet of industrial space.
On Tuesday, Zuerner said a change in administrations in Gary and its "realistic" vision for the city convinced his company it was time to do something there.
"I really believe they are trying to change the dynamic for the better," he said.