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Hammond's future success hinges on downtown, diversifying

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HAMMOND — Twenty years ago, the Woodmar Mall on Indianapolis Boulevard was — like in many malls across America at that time — all the rage.

It was a hub for families, teenagers and city residents to gather. 

In 2000, the city was known, more than anything, for catering to steel and manufacturing businesses and the blue-collar working class.

And back then, the city's once-bustling downtown along Hohman Avenue was already well into its decline.

Only a handful of law firms, doctor's offices and banks remained, coupled next to empty storefronts and second- or third-story office buildings that boasted more square footage than a business in 2020, or even 2040, will ever need, said Phil Taillon, the mayor's chief of staff. 

"Businesses had already started moving farther south, and that's when malls were still really doing well, so our downtown took a really big hit," Taillon said. 

'Downtown is the heart'

Flash forward 20 years. Hammond city leaders say they are counting on the downtown corridor to experience a renaissance of sorts under the guidance of nationally recognized urban planner Jeff Speck. 

Speck's current design plans call for a more pedestrian-friendly Hohman Avenue amid a cluster of multi-family apartments and single-family houses and mixed-use retail shops. The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District's West Lake Corridor project includes the creation of a downtown Hammond station, which city leaders are counting on to spur businesses. 

"I know it's cliche to say it, but I think downtown is the heart of a community. So if downtown takes off and becomes bustling again, it have an impact throughout the entire city ... If done right, we can get our heart pumping again." 

The city's downtown success hinges on one thing in particular — the existence of sufficient housing demand. Fortunately, the city's plans for apartments downtown has been well-received by developers that expressed interest in a recent request for proposals. 

"So that, really, is the first step, a huge residential building and we'll start to bring people to downtown," Taillon said.

Africa Tarver, executive director of planning and development, said more young professionals are looking to live in a walkable, urban core, rather than a sprawling suburban landscape. Challenges include finding businesses like retail and restaurants to fill the the large, empty buildings downtown. 

"A lot of people don't want or need a car," Tarver said. "Consumer spending habits have changed, too. You may need as many big-box stores, but there will be a demand for mixed-use." 

In 20 years, Tarver envisions Hammond's downtown will have a dense variety of retail, residential and features like a bike lanes, parking improvements. 

"You'll be able to walk to your neighborhood store and then hop on a train and go to Chicago," she said. 

Ripple effect

Anne Anderson, the city's economic development director, said Hammond leaders are setting up the neighborhoods outside of downtown for success, too. 

The city in 2018 debuted its $18 million Sportsplex and Community Center in central Hammond, along massive makeovers to some of the city’s most beloved parks scattered throughout the city.

The popularity there has given way to several developers interested in the site of the nearby, former Carson's building. 

"Because of the sports complex's success, we got to be really selective about what will go there," she said. 

The firm the city is working with wants to bring a hotel and family fun center, including a bowling alley and cinema, to the old Carson's site. The investment is worth about $7 million, she said. 

"It will be walkable, vibrant and be a place for people to go," she said. 

Taillon said city leaders, including Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr., helped changed the city's way of thinking by bringing in new, exciting development projects. 

Successes like Hammond’s initiative to replace a former coal-fired power plant on Lake Michigan with a $40 million, state-of-the-art data center is evidence the city can diversify its workforce, Taillon said. 

"I think for a long time, we kind of had that attitude of 'We are who are are and we're going to get what we're going to get,'" Taillon said. "And now we have the attitude of 'We know what we want to be and we're going to take steps to get there.'"

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North Lake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting from UIS. Contact her at lauren.cross@nwi.com or 219-933-3206.

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