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MICHIGAN CITY — Indiana's often been termed a "fly over state," not a destination.

And, said a local couple, Northwest Indiana, between the state lines of Illinois and Michigan, is considered by some as a drive-through region, with people hopping on the interstate and not giving a second, or even first, look at the some 45 miles between the two borders.

Mike and Rudy Conner, Realtors by trade, are hoping to change that. 

They, along with their children, have launched Dunes Highway Apparel Co., to promote the heritage, beauty and future potential of the diverse roadway that runs through the Region's industrial areas on the west and heavily forested areas on the east, including the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.

Rudy Conner said the idea was sparked eight or 10 years ago as they wondered how to pique people's interest in Northwest Indiana, in particular how to combat the marketing efforts made by neighboring Michigan aimed at folks in Illinois.

"Michigan is romanticized. Indiana is challenged with its industry. We just decided to embrace that," she said, adding they not only want to promote the road's history and natural beauty, but also its past and its part in development along the Lake Michigan shore.

The idea, they said, is not only to get the travelers from Illinois, Michigan and elsewhere to stop and take a look at what's located along the Dunes Highway, but to also encourage local residents to be proud of their Region.

"We want to show people how rich our area is," said their daughter Devon Carlson, who is working on the company's social media campaign. "I've always been really proud of where I live. I've always been interested in changing people's minds about the area. Summer in Northwest Indiana is magical."

The 45.16 miles of the Dunes Highway, which runs concurrent with U.S. 12, U.S. 20, U.S. 41 and Ind. 912 through the Region, was one of the first important roadways constructed here. It follows the path of Native American trails, which were later developed as a primary Chicago-to-Detroit roadway. Before becoming the Dunes Highway, from 1900 to 1910, the route was called the Old Chicago Road. In 1919 it was designated State Road 43. In 1922, the roadway was rebuilt, one of the first constructed of concrete.

Carlson said she learned through research, that during the Dunes Highway's heyday, up to 30,000 vehicles traveled at least part of the stretch each day. The number has dwindled to about 3,000 today.

Then came U.S. 20 and finally Interstate 94, both de-emphasizing the use and importance of the Dunes Highway.

In addition, said Carlson, who was inspired by the recent documentary "Shifting Sands On the Path to Sustainability," they wanted to educate people about the unique natural resource and one of the most biodiversity ecological systems that lay along the highway.

"We wanted to embrace the beauty and the grit," Carlson said.

Three months ago, said Rudy Conner, the family put their idea in motion.

"I've been trying to sell Indiana for 15 years," said Mike Conner, adding it has been a difficult task because of perceptions. They saw a need to improve marketing.

"People who move the needle are entrepreneurs and developers," he said, likening what they are trying to do with Samuel Insull, who used the South Shore poster marketing concept to lure people to Northwest Indiana on his Chicago South Shore and South Bend Railroad.

They met with the Save the Dunes organization because they wanted a "give back" component associated with the company, Rudy Conner said.

On June 3, they debuted their line of Dunes Highway apparel, including T-shirts, sweatshirts and ball camps sporting a U.S. 12 logo or "46.16," "Dunes Warrior" and "#Love Every Mile" slogans at the Jammin with Save the Dunes Festival.

"We had the opportunity to meet the folks at Dunes Highway Apparel Co. and were excited to hear they have created a company that will highlight this unique and beautiful landscape we are so lucky to have in our backyard," said Scott Kosik, president of Save the Dunes, adding the company donated a portion of the sales at the event to the organization.

That's something the family said they want to continue and are working on a formal partnership with Save the Dunes.

Mike Conner said they not only hope to expand the company, but also hope to launch events, from a music festival to a film festival, that will highlight the Dunes Highway, its heritage, potential and the communities along its path. They are reaching out to those communities and are hoping to form additional partnerships.

"You never know if you have something until you present it to the public," he said.

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Porter County Reporter

Joyce has been a reporter for nearly years, including 23 years with The Times. She's a native of Merrillville, but has lived in Portage for 39 years. She covers municipal and school government in Porter County.