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I've discovered the fountain of youth.

It's the new Mascot Hall of Fame on 119th Street in Whiting, nestled along the south shore of Lake Michigan and a short walk from Oil City Stadium.

Following a tour of the three-story, 25,000-square foot facility Tuesday, I felt 20 years younger.

And that's without the colorful displays, state-of-the-art exhibits, life-size pro and college mascots, hands-on activities and scenic banquet rooms which will fill the $16 million dollar structure by its January 2019 grand opening.

My favorite planned activities — and there were plenty — include a design-a-mascot station, which will have props and costumes; the chance to personally audition as a mascot; the opportunity to wear mascot outfits; interactive activities for basketball, football, soccer and baseball; and a detailed timeline of mascot history.

Each venue looks like it will be informative and highly entertaining for children and their parents.

It'll be like Disney World on a sunny afternoon.

The long-time dream of innovative Whiting mayor Joe Stahura is an interactive children's museum celebrating mascots — the unsung heroes of sports and entertainment. It will be the first of its kind in the world.

Stahura and executive director Al Spajer have a winner here with their plans to involve schools, communities, organizations and corporations within the Chicagoland area.

Even children who are not into sports will love the non-profit Mascot Hall of Fame. As one promotion noted: "The Hall will not be a place to look and watch. It will be a place to touch, dance, jump, laugh, wiggle, imagine and create."

Why Whiting? This cozy city of 5,000 people needed more drawing power after its built-up lakefront became a tourist attraction. It needed an extended tourist season during winter months.

Stahura got the idea two years ago after finding David Raymond, formerly the Phillie Phanatic mascot, online.

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"We stumbled across David's virtual mascot hall of fame and we just cold-called him," Stahura said. "I told him: 'David. Looks like you've got a website you spent 15 bucks on. It's a great concept but ever think of incorporating to a brick-and-mortar store?'"

Raymond thought the call was a prank, at first.

"After he hung up, he admitted the first thing he did was go to a map to find out where the hell is Whiting, Indiana," Stahura said with a chuckle. "Then he found out we're real close to Chicago, and we started talking."

Within a month, they met in Whiting and Raymond fell in love with the city.

What's not to love?

The 9.5 million people throughout the Chicagoland and Northwest Indiana region are within an hour drive of Whiting, according to Stahura.

Whiting's annual Pierogi Fest weekend draws 300,000 from around the Midwest, it's Fourth of July parade between 40,000 and 50,000 and its July 3rd fireworks 15,000.

"In South Bend, the College Football Hall of Fame failed and people told us we'd fail, too, because it's a much bigger city," Stahura said. "Know what the metropolitan statistical breakdown of the South Bend/Michiana area is — 317,000 to our 9.5 million."

He added: "It's a brilliant concept. We sold it and made it work from a business side."

"I think this place is so much fun because it's built for the right reason — kids," Spajer added. "Everything here screams family values. I can't wait for my grandkids to come in here. They're gonna go nuts. They're not gonna want to leave."

I didn't want to and the building was still empty.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at al.hamnik@nwi.com.

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