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Tourism funding boosted for county-owned venues

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Tourism funding boosted for county-owned venues

Indiana Dunes Tourism shares a visitor center with Indiana Dunes National Park.

VALPARAISO — Lorelei Weimer already knows the visitor center on Ind. 49 in Porter will need a new roof and new parking lot in five years. The hard part is setting aside enough money for the projects.

Weimer, executive director of Indiana Dunes Tourism, told the Porter County Council the two projects are estimated at $200,000 each. When the 15-year-old visitor center was built, the agency started setting aside money for future major repairs, but the costs are higher than predicted 15 years ago. The savings just won’t be enough.

The pandemic has hit the hospitality industry hard, which is another challenge for the agency’s 2022 budget. Fewer people staying in hotels means less revenue for the self-funded agency.

That comes while county-owned tourism venues have been hit hard by the pandemic. The Memorial Opera House is now back open but was closed 16 months. The Expo Center was closed for a total of nearly a year. The Porter County Museum remains closed to the public. The parks department was hit hard, too, with capacity limits on programs.

In 2019, the County Council included $150,000 in the tourism bureau’s budget to assist with advertising and marketing for the four venues. That meant $38,120.04 to the Expo Center, which Director Lori Daly was extremely helpful, considering the newly remodeled facility needed to be marketed for weddings and other events.

For Indiana Dunes Tourism, the name change to Indiana Dunes National Park has helped the county’s No. 1 tourist draw see a dramatic increase in the number of visitors. At the agency’s visitor center, which is shared with the national park, “we’re interacting with visitors who have chosen our destination” and sending them to local restaurants, shops and other venues, Weimer said.

Weimer’s agency had hoped to budget $80,000 for the four county-owned venues. “We’re trying to survive at this point,” she said. The 2021 budget included $150,000 for the venues, but there wasn’t enough revenue generated to support the budget.

“I know this (additional) $70,000 means a lot for those venues,” council President Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, said.

“My concern is you haven’t spoken with them,” Councilman Andy Bozak, R-At-Large, said.

“We cut back everything we could possibly cut back,” Weimer said. “There’s nothing that the county pays for us in order to survive.”

“When you’re talking about economic development, we’re the cheerleaders out there,” she added.

At Rivas’ suggestion, the council added $70,000 to the agency’s planned $80,000 for venue support. The county might be able to help the agency pay for those upcoming capital expenses, he added.

The revised budget was approved on second reading. It’s not final yet; the council continues to hold hearings on other aspects of the county budget before moving to a discussion of salaries and raises and then approval on third reading.

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