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Hammond stayed strong, continued progressing amid pandemic, McDermott reports during State of the City address
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Hammond stayed strong, continued progressing amid pandemic, McDermott reports during State of the City address

HAMMOND — Despite the challenges of 2020, the city of Hammond has remained strong, Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said during his State of the City address Thursday. 

Amid a global pandemic, an economic downtown and social unrest, progress didn't stop in Hammond, McDermott noted as he stood in the first floor lobby of City Hall. 

"It is no accident that Hammond weathered the trials of 2020 so well. It's due to the tireless work of countless employees, public safety officials and our elected city council," McDermott said.

"I'm proud to work with each of you, and I hope to continue making you proud of me and this wonderful city."

In 2020, the city ushered in new programs, welcomed a new police chief and laid the groundwork for new development, McDermott said. 

"The city is working with three mixed-use residential developers with a combined investment into our downtown of over $76 million," McDermott said. "That means 260,000 square feet of new residential space and 21,000 square feet of new commercial and retail space."

The multimillion-dollar project, along with a new downtown train station and more than $4 million in infrastructure improvements along Hohman Avenue, will create a "completely transformed and walkable downtown," he added.

Plans for downtown Hammond created by Jeff Speck also will help guide the city as it looks to transform downtown Hessville along Kennedy Avenue, McDermott said.

Downtown Hessville is set to be transformed into a more walkable, attractive and pedestrian and consumer friendly corridor, McDermott said.

Though announced this spring, McDermott also recognized the new $45 million YMCA set to be built near the Hammond Sportsplex, a facility that has become a "regional destination for tournaments while still serving our local community in soccer, basketball, and volleyball."

The future 100,000-square-foot YMCA will generate jobs, draw thousands of people to Hammond annually and elevate the success of nearby businesses, new and old, McDermott added.

"One of my biggest gray hairs, one of my biggest stresses was what to do with Woodmar Mall," McDermott said. "Now, once that brand new YMCA goes up, I can move on to the next project."

Go on patrol with Aaron Crawford, a Cpl. with the Lowell Police Department, as he speaks about joining the force, DUI enforcement grants, and police Jiu-jitsu training.

 

Pandemic's toll 

McDermott also discussed how COVID-19 has impacted the city, with the pandemic recently causing the death of Hammond police Sgt. Tom Sawyer, who died in the line of duty after contracting the respiratory disease.

"The pandemic didn’t just affect those who got sick. Its trickledown effect wreaked havoc on our social and economic systems as well," McDermott said. "In mid-March of 2020, Governor (Eric) Holcomb’s executive order mandated restaurants, small business, theaters, casinos and most commercial businesses to shut down."

"We saw the hospitality industry in the city hit especially hard and most economic activity brought to a standstill. Thousands of people lost their jobs and financial stability. Unemployment skyrocketed both locally and nationally."

Through the hardships brought by the pandemic, there were bright spots, McDermott said, such as 18th Street Brewery in Hammond producing hand sanitizer and people sewing homemade masks.

While the city tried to avoid feeling the "financial crush," of the coronavirus pandemic, McDermott said the city had "virtually no revenue coming in," with the Horseshoe Casino closing, homeowners falling behind on property tax payments and miscellaneous dollars, such as licensing and permitting fees, drying up.

The city lost about $9.3 million in gaming revenue in 2020, McDermott noted.

Early in the pandemic, McDermott said the Hammond City Council created an emergency financial plan in conjunction with city administration, which froze nonessential spending and created an end-of-the-year balance of nearly $4 million.

"There was one thing of paramount importance to me during the pandemic — that the city continued to function and work with our residents and businesses. While other cities throughout Northwest Indiana, and Indiana, closed up their city hall, Hammond's remained open," McDermott said. "I am proud to say we didn’t miss one day of garbage pick-ups, we didn't miss one day of snow plowing, we didn't miss one day of street sweeping, even during the darkest days of the pandemic."

In the past year, the city also changed how it determines capital projects. A new Capital Improvement Board now receives 62% of net gaming revenue every quarter and grades projects, which allows the board "to make decisions based on actual need," McDermott said.

Also new is the Small Business Resiliency program, launched in spring 2020, which provided "much-needed assistance" to small businesses to the tune of nearly $1 million spread across more than 115 local companies.

The city's legal aid clinic also began offering immigration cases services in September.

Crime rates stay low

McDermott also recognized William "Andy" Short, who was named Hammond police chief in January after serving with the department for decades.

He is the city's first African American police chief.

Former Police Chief John Doughty also was recognized for his service to the Hammond Police Department, who equipped Hammond police with body cameras and implemented Blue Net license plate reading cameras across the city.

Thus far, the city has seen a 13% decrease in crime from last year, McDermott said, noting the city's Blue Net system helps Hammond's crime rate stay low.

"The Blue Net has been integral in investigating and solving many violent crimes and property crimes, including the discovery of dozens of stolen automobiles," he said. "Our Community Partner program expanded the Blue Net’s reach by allowing our police to access business and residential camera systems when a crime occurs."

He also discussed the department's new mental health and wellness program.

The longtime mayor also touched on the city's recent water rate increase, which resulted in a lawsuit with five Northwest Indiana communities.

That lawsuit is currently being settled, and the City Council recently passed new wholesale rates for Indiana customer communities, McDermott said.

"But there is no question: the original retail rate of 46 cents per thousand gallons of water was unreasonably low and had remained that way for nearly 40 years since the rate was last passed in 1984," McDermott said. "Think about it: What other product or service has not increased in price over the last 40 years?"

On the topic of water, McDermott said he is confident in the safety and health of the water and soil at Wolf Lake after rounds of testing were conducted at the lake after dead waterfowl were discovered this spring.

"I just got done swimming in Wolf Lake. And then I heard people talking about the newspaper story, and I'm in there getting ready to do a triathlon," McDermott said. "People were like, 'Oh don't swallow the water,' so I purposely took a big mouthful of the water, and I sprayed it in the air to prove to everybody Wolf Lake is clean, and I'm still standing by the way." 

McDermott acknowledged the city is working with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management to speed up remediation from an estimated five to seven years to under three years for a portion of the Robertsdale neighborhood in Hammond that has elevated lead levels in its soil.

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South Lake County Reporter

Mary Freda is the South Lake County reporter at The Times. She is a proud Ball State graduate, where she studied news journalism and Spanish. You can reach Mary at mary.freda@nwi.com or 219-853-2563.

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