HAMMOND — Whiting is a small city of 5,000 residents, but its location and lots of forward thinking have changed the municipality into a tourism hub that will continue to grow, according to Mayor Joseph Stahura.
He talked about the city's future at Wednesday’s Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce luncheon at Dynasty Banquet Hall.
Whiting’s location along Lake Michigan provides more than 2 miles of shoreline and puts it squarely in the Chicago metropolitan area of 9.5 million people, Stahura said.
“We can build on our strength,” he said. “With our proximity to Chicago, it’s only a 20-minute drive to the downtown, and 300,000 of our closest friends visit us (for Pierogi Fest) each summer.”
Whiting’s plans to develop the lakefront and enhance the business district continues to evolve, the mayor said.
“Do something first and then employ marketing strategies. If you get it right, private money should follow,” he said.
“We invested in 119th Street and Indianapolis Boulevard with streetscape and we purchased 30-plus commercial buildings that were abandoned for years, sometimes decades.”
Those buildings were rehabbed and resold; razed and rebuilt; or stabilized and resold to developers for $1 each, Stahura said.
“This stirred the pot and stimulated growth. That changed the entire Whiting commercial real estate market," he said.
Whiting lakefront redevelopment started with a $19 million grant from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. “This grant was critical to where we are in Whiting today,” Stahura said.
An additional $35 million in grants led to a total investment of more than $60 million, he said.
“The lakefront was a gravel parking lot with large rocks. Now we have a pavilion, gazebo, paths where people can walk and ride bikes," Stahura said.
Other lakefront attractions include the floating water park Whoa Zone, a $300,000 private investment at Whihala Beach that opened in 2017.
A destination playground is planned, with construction to begin later this year. Pop-up rentals along the lakefront are designed to encourage businesses to expand their customer base, he said.
Oil City Stadium is hosting an International Baseball Tourney on July 17-22 with teams from Serbia, Croatia and Slovakia participating.
And the three-story Mascot Hall of Fame being built at the end of 119th Street also will put Whiting on the map in many ways, Stahura said.
“This will be an interactive children’s museum featuring the wacky world of mascots,” he said about the $18 million investment.
“It will have an educational emphasis working with the STEAM (science technology, engineering, the arts and mathematics) curriculum in the schools. It will be ideal for field trips.”