Chesterton Tribune

Dillon to Chamber: Dunes Lakeshore is an economic driver

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Here are some things you probably didn’t know about Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore

With 1.96 million visitors in 2009, it’s a more popular destination than Mammoth Cave National Park, Everglades National Park, and Gettysburg National Military Park.

Of those visitors, only 40 percent are Hoosiers, while another 40 percent live in Indiana. Fully 18 percent visited from other states and 2 percent from other countries.

Of those 1.96 million visitors, nearly half—47 percent—were visiting the National Lakeshore for the very first time.

One out of five of them—20 percent—spent more than 24 hours in the Dunes, the average stay being 2.8 days, longer in fact than the average stay at Grand Canyon National Park.

And while—in 2008, the most recent year for which data were available—the total spending generated by visits was $54.9 million, non-local spending was $38.7 million, sufficient to support 772 local jobs with a total labor income of $13.4 million.

In other words, the National Lakeshore is a driver of the local economy.

And as Superintendent Constantine Dillon told the Chesterton/Duneland Chamber of Commerce at its monthly luncheon on Wednesday, “There’s nothing wrong with making money off a national park.”

Indeed, Dillon intimated, local businesses could do a lot more to make some money off the National Lakeshore.

Dillon opened his presentation by correcting some common misperceptions about the National Lakeshore. Despite being called a “national lakeshore,” it is a national park, it’s managed by the National Park Service (NPS), and it’s the closest national park to Chicago, Indianapolis, Milwaukee, and Detroit. Why should its proximity to those cities matter? Because 40 percent of folks on vacation who travel more than 50 miles from their home visit a national park at least once on their holiday.

Strictly speaking, recreation is not the mission of NPS but rather the preservation of natural and historical resources. “But resource-based recreation is one of the things we do,” Dillon said. “We don’t build things like playgrounds. We use resources as they are.”

One of the things making it hard for locals to wrap their heads around, when they think about the National Lakeshore—those who think about it at all—is that it’s a far-flung picture-puzzle of property, extending through three counties and 15 municipalities, with here and there detached land-locked units, so that it’s not always obvious whether a visitor is in the park or out of it.

But, Dillon said, it’s absolutely worth it for a business to start thinking, and thinking hard, about the National Lakeshore. Americans, for instance, spend $23 billion annually on hunting and $41 billion on fishing, but they spend a whopping $45 billion simply on “observing wildlife.”

And with 301 species of birds recorded at the National Lakeshore, 1,100 species of plants, and a surprising 25 species of orchid—22 more than in the State of Hawaii—there’s a lot of wildlife to observe.

Don’t like birds? You can hit the beach, of course. But you can also camp, ride horses, hike, canoe, hang-glide at Mt. Baldy, snowshoe or cross-country ski in the winter, or attend any of the occasional festivals and events.

In other words, Dillon said, “There are opportunities for niche tourism,” if businesses are willing to promote the National Lakeshore (as NPS is prohibited by law from advertising itself). “Rare, beautiful wildflowers. Historic homes. Paddling Lake Michigan. Specialty photography. We’re really missing an opportunity for a national museum of the steel industry. I’m convinced people would flock to that.”

Yet for everything the National Lakeshore offers, for all of the millions of visitors it attracts, there is barely a single business along U.S. Highway 20 or U.S. Highway 12 catering to out-of-towners: a couple of restaurants only. “There are 2 million people coming to the National Lakeshore every year and no one’s trying to get money off it,” Dillon said.

What can local businesses do to leverage the National Lakeshore? Dillon had some suggestions.

•Simply promote and advertise it.

•Hang framed photos of the National Lakeshore—provided free of charge by NPS—in your lobby or restaurant.

•Stock the National Lakeshore’s brochure at your business. Again, they’re free of charge and a new, more attractive, more user-friendly one is due to be released later this year. NPS will provide framed versions of the brochure for the asking.

•Avail yourself of NPS expertise on tourism development, trail planning, and public programming.

Dillon asked the Chamber this question: Why is Everglades or Mammoth Cave national park a more famous destination than the National Lakeshore, even though each gets fewer visitors each year? The answer: Because their local communities do more than Duneland does to promote the national park in their backyards.

Some 1.2 million visitors from outside the state show up in Duneland every year. “Those are outside dollars coming into the area,” Dillon emphasized. “Outside dollars are valuable dollars to get.”


Posted 9/23/2010