Northwest Indiana has enjoyed almost a gold rush of economic development projects in recent years, and it appears there is still plenty of gold in them thar hills.

Lake County

In Lake County, for instance, Karen Lauerman, president and CEO of the Lake County Economic Alliance, said her organization fielded 320 site selection inquiries in 2017 and is on track to match or top that this year. The outlook for 2019 is more of the same.

“Manufacturing is our base that continues to diversify from our traditional steel and refining operations,” Lauerman said. “While those legacy institutions continue to modernize and invest in their operations, what we are seeking and expect in years to come are other types of manufacturing, for example, containers and packaging, food products, solar and alternative energy components and pharmaceuticals. In Lake County and throughout the region, we know how to make product, and Indiana is a state that works.”

The region also is a popular potential destination for businesses involved in transportation, distribution and logistics, including e-commerce, warehousing and third party logistics. Lauerman said these types of businesses have been growing here since 2015 and she expects more of that in 2019.

“This industry is ideal for Lake County, given our proximity to Chicago, within a one-day drive of two-thirds of U.S. consumers, and our location in the product supply chain. About 32 percent of LCEA leads thus far in 2018 are in this category, and we look to grow that percentage in 2019 through various initiatives.”

She said the LCEA continues to identify county sites to accommodate large-scale developments of a million square feet or more that could bring major capital investment and job opportunities. The health care field is another area that shows no signs of slowing its growth, with current and future expansion plans by various hospitals, as well as the development of medical services like cancer treatment, dialysis, open MRI and physician group offices moving closer to growing population pockets.

Lauerman said two types of businesses she anticipates to pick-up in 2019 are data center and technology-related operations and food processing and distribution, spurred by the announcements of the Digital Crossroads Lake Michigan in Hammond and U.S. Cold Storage at Ind. 2 and I-65.

The former is to be located at the site of the old State Line Generating Plant. The first phase is a 105,000-square-foot, $40 million data center with a tech incubator and a greenhouse for Purdue University Northwest that is heated by waste heat from the facility. Ultimately, the 77-acre site will see $200 million in investment for a million square feet of server storage.

The U.S. Cold Storage project is expected to be completed this year. A $60 million investment, it will provide 60 permanent jobs and almost 600 construction jobs.

Other projects underway or planned in Lake County include the recently announced Farm at the Crossroad Commons in Merrillville on the site of the former Star Plaza, a $350 million project expected to create 1,000 jobs, as well as 600 construction jobs during its development; Project Gateway phase I in East Chicago, an $80 million, million-square-foot speculative building expected to create a total of 1,000 jobs, and the Wynright Corporation plan for a $26 million, 320,400-square-foot building that will create 585 jobs.

“It has been an interesting year for retail,” Lauerman said. “While there have been national bankruptcies with local closings, Lake County is changing the narrative, opening a wide selection of establishments. At Home (filling the former Kmart in Merrillville), Burlington Coat Factory (Highland), Dicks Sporting Goods, Buona Beef and McAllister’s Deli (Schererville), Pita Pit (Crown Point), Rosatti’s Pizza (Crown Point, Cedar Lake) as well as the numerous restaurants in Centennial Village (Munster) and the potential to redevelop the Griffith Park Plaza (Griffith) illustrates the opportunities for retail in this area.

“In 2019 we expect companies to provide more amenities and quality of life issues, such as entertainment and dining,” she said. “This will attract population to Lake County but also benefit all of Northwest Indiana.”

Porter County

It has been a good year in Portage and Valparaiso for somewhat different reasons.

“We had a very good year from a lot of fronts,” Andy Maletta, Portage’s economic development director and executive director of the Portage Economic Development Corporation, said. “From a manufacturing standpoint, we brought in five new companies with more than 300 new jobs.”

All five were located in the Ameriplex Industrial Park. Camaco Corp., which makes metal frames for car seats, is completing a $9 million project that will add 200 jobs; B. Nutty, which makes gourmet peanut butter, is spending $500,000 and hiring 30 people; Voestealtine, an international company that makes welding materials, is investing between $13.5 million and $14 million and will hire 25 initially and 50 within two years; MCT International, which makes plastic food containers for the airlines, is spending $10 million and plans to hire 50 people, and President Tuxedo, which cleans and processes tuxes for rental outlets, will also add 50 jobs.

North Shore Health Systems started construction of its new administrative offices and expanded clinic in Sterling Creek. It will a double the size of the existing clinic and eventually employ about 190 people compared to the 80 working at the existing facility.

“We’ve got a couple more we’re close to landing,” Maletta said. “The shipping port, highways and rail access are attracting them. Residential construction has been crazy. We have a couple of new subdivisions with close to 80 permits pulled so far, which is about where we finished last year. We are on a pace for 90, and it looks like that will continue for the next two or three years based on their plans.”

The Promenade at Founders Square is well underway in the downtown. A total of nine buildings are going up with retail on the first level and apartments above. The first four are complete and full with eight businesses, and many of the spaces in the other buildings are already spoken for, he said.

“Our forecast is that this will continue,” Maletta said. “We’ve got people in here every day with plans or concepts. The redevelopment commission has done a good job of acquiring properties and redeveloping them. We have a couple of residential projects going through the process and a retail development on U.S. 6 that we expect to come to fruition soon.”

Greater Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce President Rex Richards said much of the developmental momentum in the city is being fueled by government investments, such as the $140 million construction and renovation of the city’s schools with the help of a recent bond issue. The city is embarking on a $4 million renovation and expansion of City Hall, and the city and the state are partnering on improvements along a 4.5-mile section of U.S. 30 that includes beautification, sidewalks and intersection safety work.

That doesn’t mean the private sector hasn’t been busy. Richards said the downtown housing market, with condos and apartments, continues to be strong. These include the St. Paul Square 48-unit condo project at the former site of St. Paul Church at Chicago and Campbell Streets.

The city also is in discussion with a developer for the former Anco industrial building at Horse Prairie and Brown streets near the downtown. The Indianapolis development company Flaherty and Collins Properties has proposed a $75 million investment that could include a distillery and apartments.

Also, a 250,000-square-foot Meijer store, the largest in the chain, recently opened at Porter’s Vale Shopping Center.

“We got people looking around,” Richards said of the future.

LaPorte County

Bert Cook, executive director of the Greater LaPorte Economic Development Corp., said 2018 has been a good year, “but a different year.”

“On the commercial side, it’s been phenomenal,” Cook said. “Flaherty and Collins are going to build a 200-unit high-end residential apartment complex, a $30 million investment. It’s the type of housing younger professionals are looking for plus older people looking to reduce their maintenance responsibilities. That will start construction in the spring.”

Community Health Systems, the biggest employer in town, is building a $125 million hospital to replace the existing facility. Started a couple of months ago, it will be ready by the end of 2020 and retain the existing 1,000 jobs. On the industrial side, American Renolit, which makes plastic films for a variety of applications, started construction of $25 million production line that will add 30 jobs when it opens in 2019.

Don’t tell Choo-Choo Charlie but American Licorice built a $1.5 million corporate office in Thomas Rose Industrial Park. Its 17,000 square feet of office space includes a yoga room, library and cafeteria.

“It’s a tool to attract more people to the work force, and they are constantly hiring,” Cook said.

The industrial sector was a little slow in 2018, which Cook attributed to the shortage of space, something the city is working on. An exception is Holladay Properties, which is building a commercial facility on 12 acres with space for other development. The city also is looking forward to the impact the completion of the Chessie Trail from Pine Lake to the downtown through the Newport Landing development by Flaherty and Collins will have.

“We are hoping for continued growth in the national economy,” Cook said of 2019.