CHESTERTON — Town Manager Dave Cincoski said the community and its people have suffered right along with others during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but has found creative ways to keep moving forward and positioning itself for a strong return.
"Good people live in Chesterton, its elected and appointed officials are both responsible and compassionate, and its business community is creative," he said. "I'm nothing but optimistic about this town’s future in 2021 and beyond."
Among the economic bright spots since March 2020 is the issuance of 40 permits for commercial remodels or improvements, Cincoski said in a report complied in conjunction with the town council. These permits included seven restaurants, five health/beauty businesses, three dental/legal offices and at least two general business expansions.
Traffic passes through the intersection of Calumet Road and Broadway in downtown Chesterton.
"The value for 20 of those 40 permits totals $1.24 million," he said.
There were also 66 permits issued for new homes and three for new commercial buildings, Cincoski said.
Duneland Chamber of Commerce President Maura Durham said many of local business owners expecting to see dramatically reduced revenue in 2020 finished up the year with surprisingly strong results.
"So I think they were very happy that they came through it," she said.
Durham credits this turnaround, in large part, to the support the local businesses received from the community.
Sales of the chamber's gift certificates, which are redeemable at 90 local businesses, were strong last year, she said.
"I think you need to go out of your way to help your local community," Durham said.
She has also seen examples of local businesses teaming up to help one another. Several of the area beer and wine dealers have come together to host shared pub-crawl events.
After a delay created by the need to implement mask and social-distancing requirements, the chamber's European Market had a successful season last year, Cincoski said. The annual market drew in many out-of-town visitors, who found local restaurants offering expanded outdoor seating, and curbside and delivery services.
"There was, in short, a great deal of adaptation to the new normal," Cincoski said.
Durham also credited this adaption with helping businesses to survive and thrive. Health care providers have done the same with the development of "telehealth" services for patients.
"I hope to see that continue and progress," she said.
The local Duneland School Corp. has endured throughout the pandemic by "offering both in-person and remote learning models with an emphasis on social and emotional well-being," Public Relations Director Bridget Martinson said.
"Families have the flexibility to switch models with each quarter depending on individual circumstances and take advantage of a comprehensive summer school program in which students will have opportunities for remediation and enrichment," she said.
"We will continue to provide a safe and engaging environment where students are empowered to explore their talents, build on their curiosity, embrace high expectations, and become responsible, caring citizens," Martinson said. "In addition to typical school-day activities, students will continue to participate and compete in co- and extra-curricular activities at the local and state level."
The town council did its part to help flatten the curve of new COVID-19 infections by enacting an ordinance in May, which defined and limited public gatherings on public property months before the orders from the county health department, Cincoski said. The council also made $10,000 available to the Chesterton Branding Leadership Team to pursue an emergency marketing plan, which included a "Shop—Dine—Stay" campaign.
"My conclusion is that the pandemic has in no way diminished the entrepreneurial spirit of Chesterton’s business community, its optimism for the future, its ability to evolve and adapt, or its sheer perseverance under the most trying and challenging of circumstances," Cincoski said.
John Rogers stands near his newest store in Chesterton, a cigar and liquor bar near the toll road and Coffee Creek.
The chamber will continue helping out by serving the local business community with communication, grants and hosting local events such as the European Market, Corkscrew & Brew and the annual award recognition night, Durham said. It is unclear how the pandemic will continue to impact these events, but the plan is to move forward as possible with in-person and/or virtual events.
"I'm not sure what May 1 will look like," she said of the traditional starting date for the weekly downtown European Market.
The branding leadership team is also spearheading an ambitious reinvention project at the downtown Coffee Creek Park, Cincoski said. The effort is looking at the installation of hillside seating, additional stairways into the park, an amphitheater or pavilion, and an expansion of the sledding hill.
"The idea is to connect Coffee Creek Park more organically with the downtown and leverage its amenities to make it a regional destination," he said.
"In other, mostly small, ways, the town of Chesterton has tried to keep up the morale of its residents," Cincoski said.
The police and fire departments collaborated in April to bring the Easter Bunny to all of the neighborhoods and subdivisions in town, and did it again with Santa Claus in November.
Police also handed out "thumbs-up and thumbs-down" signs in the wake of the state's lockdown order that both gave residents a way to signal for non-emergency help and know that residents "have one another's backs, that we're all each other's neighbors," he said.