New National Lakeshore site under construction: Among
those touring the new Portage Lakefront Park now under construction were
(left to right) Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore Superintendent Constantine
Dillon, Portage Mayor Olga Velazquez, and the National Lakeshore’s Eric Ehn.
The park, located immediately west of Burn’s Ditch in Portage, will include a
visitor’s center. (Tribune photo by Vicki Urbanik)
By VICKI URBANIK
After crossing a bridge over Burn’s Ditch in the heart of heavy industry, a
visitor will take a bit of a trek down a now-dirt path past rolling dunes
before the spectacular scene of Lake Michigan emerges.
By the end of this year, that trek will be a little easier and open to
whoever wants to take it, when a new lakefront park opens in Portage.
The park promises to be one of the most unusual around: To the immediate east
is Burns Ditch and the hulking Midwest Steel, while to the west is an expanse
of dunes and lakefront beach, with a clear view of Ogden Dunes homes a short
Administratively, the park is the first of its kind in the country. The park
will be part of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, but the city of Portage
will run it.
“This is an unusual project for a national park,” said Indiana Dunes National
Lakeshore Superintendent Constantine Dillon, who noted that usually, national
parks are built and run by the National Park Service or a contracted
concessionaire, but not by a partnering city. “It’s a groundbreaking
On Friday’s blustery and crisp afternoon, Dillon and other National Lakeshore
staffers gave the media a preview of the new park now under construction.
Joining the group was Portage Mayor Olga Velazquez.
The Portage Lakefront Park consists of 57 acres that had been used for
processing hazardous waste from Midwest’s steel operations. The National Park
Service bought the land in October, 2004, after National Steel removed all
contaminated material from the site and secured a clean rating from the U.S.
Environmental Protection Agency.
Dillon noted that the city of Portage had access to money that the National
Lakeshore did not -- namely from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development
Authority as part of the Marquette Plan. So while the National Park Service
bought the land for $3.38 million, the city tapped a U.S. Corps of Engineers
grant for $737,300 to demolish the old wastewater treatment facility, as well
as RDA funds, totaling $6.4 million, to plan and construct the park.
“We just don’t have the operating money to run this -- we’re stretched,”
Dillon said of the National Lakeshore. Of the partnership with the city, he
said: “Everybody wins. It’s a great idea and a great concept.”
Work is well underway on the park. Dillon said the hope is that the park will
be completed in October.
The park will provide parking for about 125 vehicles, with a fishing pier and
hiking/biking trails. The breakwater now on the lakefront will be open as a
Dillon noted that park visitors will be able to walk or jog on the beach,
past Ogden Dunes, and to West Beach, which is also in the National Lakeshore.
The trek to and from West Beach is two miles.
An approximately 3,500 square foot visitor’s center will include an open
patio with a fireplace, as well as a closed interior that will house
classroom and meeting space and a small food service area.
The facility is a LEED building (Leadership in Energy and Environmental
Design), to be heated and cooled with a geothermal system and constructed
with building materials originating within a 500-mile radius.
Velazquez said she’s thrilled about the park, because it will give people
access to the beach, as well as a place to bird watch or picnic or just sit
and look at nature. “It’s just a spectacular view,” she said.
She noted that there aren’t many other places along the shore where people
can go and sit in a building and look out at the lake.
The city will staff the park and operate it in accordance with National Park
Service policies. There will be no fee for park entry for anyone, Portage
resident or not. Velazquez said it’s not yet known how many city park
employees will be hired.
Dillon noted that work on the new park began under both his and Velazquez’
predecessors; Dillon assumed the superintendent’s post last year after the
retirement of Dale Engquist, while Velazquez was elected to succeed Doug
Olson as mayor at the start of this year.
Despite the change in leadership, the two have continued to work together on
the park. “We have a good relationship with the city,” Dillon said.