CHESTERTON — Imagine watching a pivotal scene in a movie, such as the confrontation between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker in "Star Wars."
Right when the masked villain is about to reveal Luke's true parentage, suddenly a train horn blasts, killing the tension. Or imagine you are out in the park, enjoying a nice picnic and chatting with friends. Right in the middle of your conversation, there it is again. A train letting itself be heard.
These are among the many examples cited in a survey conducted by the Chesterton Branding Leadership and Indiana Dunes Tourism to gauge what residents wanted.
The two organizations announced the results of a downtown survey they conducted last summer to foster growth and involvement in the community.
Of the more than 1,300 respondents, the vast majority were from Chesterton, with about 14% from neighboring Porter or Burns Harbor. The remaining respondents came outside of the Duneland area. Most of them mentioned the trains.
“In the short-answer portions, people would add things to their comments to make sure we were aware of it. That was the most common addition,” said Lorelei Weimer, executive director of IDT and co-chair of CBLT. “The survey showed this was a hot topic we wanted everyone to get a pulse on.”
Weimer said many of the respondents indicated that none of the improvements to downtown would matter as long as the trains blast their horns.
“They essentially said that if they had all these great amenities, what would be the point if you're interrupted by the trains?” she said. “So that really was one of our main takeaways.”
Councilman James Ton, R-1, said the creation of what he calls a “quiet corridor” is key for the downtown but it's a complicated process.
“It's not just one crossing, it's five. It's why the trains are so loud. They lay on the horn because once they're done there's another stop,” he said. “I can't fault them for that. It's a safety issue mandated by the federal government. So that's the crux of it, we have to rebuild the crossings so they eliminate any hazards.”
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Ton said the Town Council has been working on the train issue for years now. Members are in the process of accepting proposals for an engineering study of all five crossings.
“That's the first step is to get the study and then we can see the real costs and make a determination,” he said. “Then we have to decide, do we do all five crossings? Which ones do we make a priority? The popular sentiment I've seen is that Calumet Road, 4th Street and 8th Street are the most important.”
Another thing respondents were passionate about was the return of the Wizard of Oz festival. It ended its three decade-plus run in 2012 after it became too challenging to find volunteers to help.
Attempts to revive the festival have not met with success so far.
Ton said he welcomes anyone with the initiative to organize a community event. The only problem he sees is a lack of an opening on the town's calendar because there are so many events.
“I have trouble keeping track of them all. The park always has something going on, which I'm glad to see,” he said. “If someone wanted to revive the Wizard of Oz festival, I think they'd be hard-pressed today to find space for it.”
Weimer said she's been advised by consultants that expanding activity downtown is key to maintaining growth, so she welcomes someone trying to revive the festival or start their own.
“We need 265 days of the year to have some activity, whether it's a festival or a market, anything that draws people,” she said. “But not one entity can put everything on. It takes a village, or a town in our case. We need to work with the park board, the schools and local businesses to make it work.”
Weimer said she is meeting with business leaders to discuss some of the survey's findings and encourage them to make a collective effort to move toward what the public wants.