Commercial construction has been rebounding as a growing number of projects get underway in Northwest Indiana.

Nationally, construction grew to about $930 million in December, a 5.3 percent improvement over December 2012, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Nonresidential construction surpassed $311 million in December, the second highest it has been in the last five years though a slight decrease from December 2012.

In Northwest Indiana, construction deliveries grew to their highest level since 2008, according to the commercial real estate firm NAI Hiffman. About 205,000 square feet of new commercial space was added in the last three months of the year. Hanson Logistics added 90,000 square feet onto its Hobart facility, and Dawn Foods finished a new 125,000-square-foot building at Merrillville's AmeriPlex at the Crossroads Business Park.

Hasse Construction President William Hasse III said commercial construction is looking up even after the end of the $4.2 billion BP Whiting modernization project because of pent-up demand, low inflation and low interest rates. Overall construction activity, excluding home building, is projected to rise by 6 percent in 2014.

"It's dramatically up compared to the last five years and it continues to grow," Hasse said.

An additional 548,228 square feet is now under construction in Northwest Indiana, according to NAI Hiffman's year-end report. Work began on a 123,000-square-foot facility for Munster Steel at Hammond's West Point Industrial Park, and on a 25,000-square-foot facility for Aunt Millie's Bakeries in Merrillville.

Construction continues apace on 350,000-square-foot building for Urshel Laboratories Inc.'s new $80 million headquarters in Chesterton, and on a 50,228-square-foot speculative building in Portage's AmeriPlex at the Port in Portage.

Retail projects also are returning, including the $112 million Shops on Main in Schererville. Weiss Entities is expanding its 3,000-square-foot Wise Guys Discount Liquors Store in Hobart into a much larger 16,000-square-foot store that will boast at least three times as much selection, said President Don Weiss. The company wants to build a super-sized regional liquor store like in Chicago to cater to increasingly sophisticated tastes in wine and craft beer.

Weiss also is building a business park along with luxury apartments in its $100 million Lakes of Valparaiso project. Weiss recently got a key go-ahead to move forward after months of negotiations.

Construction projects have been taking off in Northwest Indiana as vacancy rates have been plunging in existing buildings. Businesses took over 347,776 square feet of space in commercial buildings in the fourth quarter, causing the vacancy rate to plunge by 44 basis points to 6.78 percent. The vacancy rate decreased by almost a full percent during 2012, as about 600,000 square feet of space was absorbed, the most since 2010.

The greater Chicago market posted its 14th straight month of positive net absorption in the fourth quarter, according to NAI Hiffman's year-end report. Businesses occupied 15.8 million square feet of space throughout the greater Chicago area, an 8.3 percent increase over 2012 and the most since 2007.

NAI Hiffman forecasts continued improvement, as companies such as Tec Air Inc. move from southern Cook and Will counties to Northwest Indiana, to take advantage of a lower cost of doing business and smaller tax bills.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.