Two of the most iconic Region landmarks, the Star Plaza Theatre and the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza, will be torn down next year to make room for a new, fancier hotel at the busiest intersection in Northwest Indiana.
Both the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza and the Star Plaza Theatre will be permanently shuttered in 2017 because the buildings are outdated and renovations to today's standards would be prohibitively expensive, according to White Lodging officials.
White Lodging plans to build a more upscale, nationally branded hotel with 215 rooms and 12,000 square feet of meeting space, including an 8,000-square-foot ballroom to host weddings and other large gatherings.
It will replace a landmark hotel known for its indoor waterfall and the Region's premier show-business venue, which has hosted countless A-list performers such as Liberace, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Aretha Franklin, Christina Aguilera, Chris Rock, Garth Brooks, Motley Crue and B.B. King.
The Oak Ridge Boys, who have played annual concerts during the holiday season — first for New Year's Eve, then for Christmas — for 37 years, weighed in about the closing on Twitter.
"Wow ... A lot of dear friends and memories," the country and gospel quartet tweeted. "It makes this one very special."
The closing will have a ripple effect on Merrillville restaurants like Asparagus and Gamba Ristorante, and create a void for concerts and conventions in the Region, said Speros Batistatos, South Shore Convention and Visitor Authority’s president and CEO.
SSCVA staff scrambled Tuesday to figure out what to do with conventions already scheduled during the nearly two-year period between when the Radisson at Star Plaza will be torn down and the new hotel will open.
Batistatos said there's now urgency for a new convention center, likely through a public-private partnership, to save some of the tourism business that would be lost.
"The South Shore CVA has helped host hundreds of thousands of visitors at the hotel, conference space and theater," he said.
"Personally, I am deeply saddened, as I started my career at the Star Theatre more than three decades ago. The proposed changes will create new opportunities for the Region, and our organization is excited to see the growth of our destination. With the changes, the CVA is poised to stay competitive in the sports, convention, business and leisure travel market."
The theater will conclude its final season in April before being torn down; the hotel closes in January. White Lodging will help make new arrangements for groups that booked meetings or events later than that date, said Deno Yiankes, White Lodging president and CEO for investments and development.
The new hotel will open in late 2018, and a second hotel and a bike trail eventually could be built on the site.
White Lodging's new hotel could stand up to six stories tall, though the design has not been finalized, and will include a national training center for White Lodging employees from all over the country.
The more upscale hotel will have about 100 fewer rooms and about 18,000 fewer square feet of meeting space than the Radisson at Star Plaza — which was expanded several times over the years. Also, Wisecrackers Comedy Club, T.J. Maloney's Authentic Irish Pub, Starbucks and the Star Cafe likely will be gone.
Fresh concept at the time
In 1969, billionaire Dean White built a Holiday Inn amid cornfields at Interstate 65 and U.S. 30 in Merrillville. A decade later, his son Bruce White’s Whiteco Industries added the Holiday Star Theatre to bring Las Vegas-style entertainment to the once-sleepy interchange.
"I think everyone has memories and gratitude for what Mr. White has done," Merrillville Ward 6 Town Councilman Shawn Pettit said.
"I myself have attended several dozens and dozens of functions at the Star Plaza, including the Crossroads gala and the town ball. The Star Plaza has been a huge economic boom and the hotel before that since the 1960s, and it's sad to see it go. But they did an amazing job with the JW Marriott in Indianapolis, and if it's along the same lines I would be very excited."
The Whites' visionary developments helped transform the then-rural area into "the Main Street of Lake County," a commercial corridor that now has a super-regional mall and more restaurants per capita than any other city in Indiana. The Star Plaza theater and hotel have been widely credited with putting Merrillville on the map, making Northwest Indiana a destination, and drawing up to 500,000 visitors a year.
But the Radisson Hotel — a gathering place that many Region residents have visited for a wedding or business conference at some point — is now nearly 50 years old, past the lifespan of most suburban hotels.
The Star Plaza Theatre just came off its most profitable year in 2015, according to management. But the concert venue is outdated in an era where A-list stars play in sports stadiums.
The White family said it has a new vision for the interchange it transformed into Lake County’s commercial hub — one they hope will anchor it and be a source of community pride for the next 40 or 50 years.
"The decision to close the Radisson and Star Plaza Theatre was carefully analyzed and not taken lightly," White Lodging Chairman and CEO Bruce White said.
"As part of this community — and even more, as a part of the White family — I know what the property has meant to all of us. However, when we looked at the enormously positive impact the new facility can have on the area, we realized this would be the logical next chapter of my father's dream. And this new chapter and fresh look will help put Northwest Indiana on the right track to attract new visitors and groups as well as new jobs and opportunities for the community."
White Lodging plans to build a higher-class hotel that will have a national training center for the company, as well as a standalone restaurant Yiankes said would be "very special."
The hotel White Lodging will develop will have about two-thirds as many rooms as the 343-room Radisson Star Plaza, will employ about 110 workers in the hotel and another 50 at the standalone restaurant.
“It’s about the legacy of the White family,” Yiankes said.
Merrillville-based White Lodging, which operates 160 hotels across the United States, notified the 140 employees at the Radisson at Star Plaza in Merrillville and the more than 100 mostly part-time employees at the Star Plaza on Tuesday afternoon.
All hotel employees will be given the opportunity to transfer to White Lodging’s other 25 hotels in the Chicago area but will get severance if they don’t stay on with the company.
White Lodging will open a career center in the Radisson at Star Plaza to help employees find new jobs, and have one-on-one meetings with all of them to talk about their personal circumstances.
“The employees have been our first concern in all of this,” Yiankes said.
Star Plaza Theatre President, CEO and talent buyer Charlie Blum said he would try to offer Star Plaza employees future job opportunities with the entertainment division, Star Productions, which is expanding and books tours, produces television and manages talent.
Blum said it wouldn't be feasible to rebuild the Star Plaza, since it would have to be significantly larger to host today's concerts. There isn't enough room on the site for a more contemporary-sized building and all the parking that would be needed.
"It's sad," Blum said. "It's created so many incredible memories. But the new hotel will be an economic driver."
The standalone restaurant will be a sit-down one that's expected to be upscale. The company said it couldn't yet disclose the new eatery's name or brand.
Whether a second hotel or a bike trail will be built will be determined later.
White Lodging, which employs 12,000 people in 29 states, will send new managers and employees from across the country to the new hotel for training.
Yiankes said the new hotel will have an entirely different concept, and that almost certainly would mean the end of Wisecrackers Comedy Club, the iconic waterfall in the rock-walled indoor pool, and T.J. Maloney’s Authetic Irish Pub. Wisecrackers, which opened in 1990, is one of only two Northwest Indiana comedy clubs, the other being D Performance Comedy Theatre in Gary's Miller neighborhood.
The Radisson at Star Plaza also is home to a busy Starbucks and the Star Cafe, a dinner buffet only open on the night of shows that's jam-packed with memorabilia like a DVD autographed by Academy Award-winner Jamie Foxx and a banjo signed by Wayne Newton.
The new hotel won’t have as much meeting space as the Radisson does now, but it will still have much more than other area hotels, so it should remain the Region's premier meeting place, Yiankes said.
“It’s the place where Northwest Indiana meets, and we believe it will remain so,” he said. “Most new hotels in the area aren’t built with more than 1,000 square feet of meeting space, and this will have significantly more.”
The reduction in meeting space and guestrooms reflects the current market demand, since steel company executives on business trips aren’t filling up hotel rooms the way they used to, Yiankes said.
“After about 40 years of running it, we think we have an understanding of the local market,” Yiankes said