EAST CHICAGO — On a warm September morning, Sandy Ruhlander walks with her two dogs along the docks of the East Chicago Marina as another boating season draws near an end.
For Ruhlander and many other boaters who have made this dock their second home, it may be their final haul-out, a term meaning to pull a boat out of the water.
Ruhlander and her husband, Archie, and at least three other boat owners from their dock are moving over to the Hammond Marina as the East Chicago Marina undergoes a major renovation project that will eliminate a number of slips.
"We're excited about the new chapter that we're all going to have," she said. "It's sad, though, to be leaving this marina."
City officials are making major changes to the marina in hope of attracting more residents and other users to the area.
The dock removal and replacement project is expected to cost about $4 million, and another $2.2 million will be spent on making other improvements, including a harbor walk. The number of slips will be reduced to about 140 from 285.
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The number of slips rented had only averaged about 175 for the last three or four years, according to Natalie Adams, marina general manager.
"We will be making some great improvements to the marina, but we will be reducing the number of slips," Adams said.
The plan has prompted complaints from some boaters, although the impact may not be as great as that felt several years ago when the Hammond Marina temporarily shut down. At least now, there appears to be plenty of space available at nearby marinas such as Hammond's.
Still, many boaters who have been at the East Chicago marina for years are upset about potentially having to leave a place they said they have supported for so long. Those boaters include Sandy and Archie Ruhlander, owner of Harbor Marine Service, that was once based out of a building at the East Chicago Marina.
Highland resident Nancy Casey and her husband, Joe, have been using the marina for 25 to 30 years and were also checking out possible sites at the Hammond marina last week.
"The boaters aren't happy, and the residents probably don't have any idea what's going on (in regard to the project)," Nancy Casey said.
Revenue down, repairs delayed
City representatives, however, said only three East Chicago residents have boats at the marina, which they said has been a money-losing venture. They said they want to try to create a wider variety of activities to draw more people to the area.
Jim Bennett, a financial consultant for the city who is a boater himself, said the East Chicago Marina has consistently lost money even after expenses were cut almost in half.
Marino Solorio, the city's planning and economic development director, and Adams, said the marina has been neglected in the past and fallen into disrepair. Adams said the marina has been patching things up and putting Band-Aids on problems for the last couple of years. Bennett noted the work will be done on the docks after the season is over and thinks it will be a good project for the entire community.
Marina manager Adams said while she has fielded complaints from boaters about the reduction, she contends some are looking forward to the change. She noted the city will have the ability to put back in additional slips if it proves more financially feasible in the future.
Bids for the marina work are expected to be opened in early October, and Solorio said the city's goal is to have all the new slips ready by Memorial Day, although Sandy Ruhlander was skeptical the work could be done that quickly.
"Our boating season is so short, anyway, and normally it is April 1 to Oct. 1. If their target date is Memorial Day next year, that's two months into our season and we're not prepared to do that," Sandy Ruhlander said.
New activities to draw new patrons?
Other changes at the marina include a harbor walk around the marina and converting part of the marina to rental area for smaller vessels like kayaks, canoes, jet skis, and paddleboats. Bennett said most of the funding for the $2.2 million harbor work will come from money the city received from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority for lakefront development.
"We are looking for more amenities that will make it more of a destination point and will be utilized by many people and not just by boaters," Adams said.
Solorio said the hope is that as more people are attracted to the area, the city might be able to attract a restaurant like a Buffalo Wild Wings to open there.
"It really is a complete revitalization of our lakefront and not just one-dimensional," he said.
Hammond's marina is expected to benefit from the reduction in slips at the East Chicago marina.
Hammond Port Authority Director Milan A. Kruszynski said after the announcement of the E.C. improvement project, the Hammond marina had a lot of boaters come up looking for a place to keep their boats next season.
The situation is much different than when the Hammond Marina shut down at the end of the season in 2006 to make way for an expansion of the Horseshoe Casino. At that time, nearly all the Hammond Marina's 982 slips were filled, and a Times survey of about a dozen public and private marinas in the south shore could not find 1,000 slips available to accommodate the displaced boaters.
The Hammond marina now has 918 slips, and about 400 slips available for new tenants this time around.
"I am going to miss it," said Sandy Ruhlander of the East Chicago Marina. "I mean, we've made a lot of great friends here, but it's time to move on."