The lakefront is pitched as a tourist attraction, but for many people it's their workshop.

More than 21,000 report daily to industrial manufacturing jobs, many in steel and oil refining, within a mile and a half of Lake Michigan's shoreline.

But north Lake County isn't just about steel making and oil refining. Its largest cities also are centers of employment for thousands more in health care, education, transportation, retail trade, food service, public administration and the arts.

This is vividly illustrated on a U.S. Census Bureau website OnTheMap, which uses 2014 data, the most recent available, to chart where the primary jobs of more than 181,000 Lake County workers are within the county's 626 square miles. A primary job is the highest-paying job held by an individual worker.

Employment in 20 industrial and professional business sectors is depicted as deep blue concentrations in the area of Whiting's BP Refinery, East Chicago's ArcelorMittal mills, U.S. Steel's Gary Works and industrial centers in north Hammond.

Other employers in sectors such as retail, professional services and health care are along Calumet Avenue, Indianapolis Boulevard (U.S. 41) and Broadway and extend south into the county's suburbs.

But many come, often from long distances, to the water's edge to work because that is where many of the best salaries are, although you wouldn't know it at first glance.

Lake's urban north is home to more than 58,000 living in poverty. Nevertheless, 40 percent of those who work their primary job in Hammond, 58 percent of those who work such jobs in Gary, 69 percent of those working in East Chicago and 74 percent of those working in Whiting earn $40,000 a year or more.

Conversely, household incomes in Dyer, Munster, St. John, Schererville and Winfield are more than 20 percent over the national median, but 60 percent to 77 percent of the jobs in those towns pay less than $40,000, indicating they are mainly in lower wage sectors such as retail and restaurants.

The origin of the higher-paying jobs along the lakefront are found in the American industrial revolution that transformed a wasteland of sandy marshland a century ago.

Steve McShane, curator of the Calumet Regional Archives at Indiana University Northwest, said north county was a wasteland 100 years ago.

"It was pretty desolate, except for railroad towns, like Miller and Tolleston and Hobart," he said. 

But, Elbert H. Gary, who also became U. S. Steel's first chairman, John D. Rockefeller, who formed Standard Oil, and other entrepreneurs saw opportunity.

"Northwest Indiana was very close to the sizzling hot Midwest markets for industrial projects, steel, oil and other products produced by the big mills. Land was pretty cheap and there was plenty of it," he said.

"Railroads had to go through Northwest Indiana to get to Chicago so there was a good railroad network for bringing in raw materials and shipping finished products out. You also had Lake Michigan for transportation and large amounts of water to cool the machines," McShane said.

In the early 2000s, lobbyists for area steel mills and the Whiting Refinery told state legislators they were shouldering too much of the tax burden in the Region. Industry captains hinted they might have to relocate to a lower tax environment.

The state responded by reducing taxes and tax assessments on industrial land values and heavy equipment by hundreds of millions of dollars, resulting in significant tax breaks. Those tax breaks in turn did spur the promised investment, including a $4 billion expansion of BP's Whiting Refinery and hundreds of millions of dollars in new steel mill investments.

Farther south, service-oriented businesses dominate the employment scene in Munster, Highland, Griffith, Dyer, Schererville, St. John, Merrillville, Crown Point, Lake Station, New Chicago, Hobart, Cedar Lake, Lowell, Schneider and Winfield.

Almost 9,800 worked their principal jobs in the town of Highland in 2014, where retail trade, health care and food services are the top employers.

Highland Redevelopment Director Cecile Petro said her town hopes to add more such jobs in the near future if the latest development becomes a reality — 160,000 square feet of building space in a proposed business park near Main Street and Indianapolis Boulevard.

"We have developed Indianapolis Boulevard, where there are approximately 40,000 vehicles a day on that road. People tell me they try to avoid that traffic, but to us, it means commerce. Everybody would love to be on Indianapolis Boulevard," Petro said

She said she would like more undeveloped green space to attract new business, like some other suburbs but, "Highland is very blessed with location, location location. We are the center of Lake County."

"Its just easy for people to get here. We are right between the growth in south county and the urban north. We have three exits off of Interstate 94, with its 250,000 vehicles a day," Petro said.

Health care employed more than 30,000 full time in 2014 in Lake County.

Most of the health care jobs are in communities that host hospitals, including 5,177 health care jobs in Munster, 4,385 in Gary, 4,058 in Hammond, 3,495 in Crown Point, 3,278 in Merrillville, 2,574 in Hobart, 1,852 in Dyer and 1,619 in East Chicago.

Donna Ricard, is a nurse practitioner, who has been an employee of Franciscan St. Anthony Health in Crown Point for 17 years.

"I started out of college as a nurse on a cardiac care unit at Franciscan because I grew up in Merrillville," she said. "My father worked at Inland Steel as a mill worker for 43 years. I married a Crown Point boy. This felt like home to me," Ricard said.


Lake County Reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.