Chesterton Tribune

50 years ago Chesterton Chamber formed to cash in on Region's growth

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By KEVIN NEVERS

The population of Westchester Township is burgeoning, Chicagoland is continuing to seep eastward, and the time is ripe to jump on the growth bandwagon.

In its day, Chesterton and Porter bustled with industry—Hillstrom Organ, Chicago Hydraulic Pressed Brick, Warren Featherbone, Sal Mountain Asbestos, Bradley Chair, Chesterton Roller—but it’s long since become a bedroom community, a nice place to come home to after a long commute, quaint and green and undisturbed by factory whistles. For a small businessman with a payroll to make and a family to support, a tidy little manufacture would be just the thing to create new jobs, generate new customers, and circulate new cash.

On the face of it, there’s no reason why Chesterton shouldn’t be able to grab a piece of the action. Certainly it’s strategically located: on the skirts of the region’s steel mills, at the heart of a rumbling rail network, within spitting distance of a proposed deepwater port at Burns Ditch. One thing only is needed: a group of dedicated, savvy businessmen who can promote the town, leverage its geography, and attract investment.

It’s 1955.

Today, as Chesterton officials divvy up TIF and CEDIT moneys, tinker with the Comprehensive Plan and the Zoning Ordinance, chase after grants and grant abatements, it’s easy to assume that this generation is the first one sophisticated enough to recognize the relationship between the quality of the marketplace and quality of life. That in our wisdom we invented a discipline called economic development and the professional planners, marketing consultants, and burrowing bureaucrats who go with it.

Yet if, in the postwar era, Chesterton businessmen lacked our technical and statutory wherewithal, they had something else instead: a sense of urgency. Steel was going great guns, Chicago’s shoulders were broadening, and as they looked outside their little corner of the world they saw to the west—across the Westchester Township line, across the Porter County line—a rising tide of growth. And they were fearful of missing the wave. It was, to their way of thinking, a zero-sum game they were at, with one winner and many losers and the advantage going to the bigger, better positioned players. The pitch needed leveling; the small-town underdogs, a competitive edge.

Thus was the Chesterton Chamber of Commerce born, half a century ago, on March 9, 1955, at an organizational meeting attended by nine at the Wilbar Manufacturing Company. The goal of the Chamber, the Chesterton Tribune reported: “to advance the commercial, industrial, and civic interest of Chesterton and its trade area.”

Its first president: Robert Judd.

Its first vice-president: Warren R. Canright.

Annual dues: $24.

Special charter membership fee: $5.

We know now that the Chamber had less of a hand in guiding the economic development of the town than its charter members may have hoped or expected at the time. Chesterton is bigger and busier than it was 50 years ago, but it is hardly more industrial. With only 264 acres zoned I-1 or I-2—a mere 5 percent of its 5,682 total acres—the town could hardly be industrial at all.

But Chesterton may be less commercial as well, or at least less diverse in its commercial. A business directory compiled by the Chesterton Retail Merchants Association and published in the Tribune in August 1956 lists four major appliance stores—but only one antique shop; a cinema; a roller rink; a miniature golf course; six barber shops; two sellers of children’s wear; three dairies; three feed and garden stores; a furniture store; a furrier; seven sellers of general merchandise; 21 groceries; three hardware stores; three jewelers; three sellers of ladies’ wear; two sellers of men’s and boys’ wear; two paint stores; a shoe store and a cobbler; a sporting goods store; a taxi service; and two upholsterers.

In short, Chesterton never did quite catch the wave. But don’t blame the Chamber. The steel industry has ebbed and flowed, and while it’s still the backbone of our economy, it employs thousands fewer than it once did, and many of the businesses which once battened on the mills have dried up and sloughed off. In any case, the region, this county, and the township have all been slow to respond to the radical changes in the nature of industry itself, the sunset of the smokestacks and the rise of the microchip. No one, for example, has yet cracked the-chicken-or-the-egg problem posed by the brain drain: high-tech industries are unlikely to locate in a place without an adequate pool of college graduates, and college graduates are unlikely to settle in a place without a promising synergy of high-tech industries. Indiana’s long-standing inventory tax, on the other hand, put a damper on what could have been a profitable sideline in this Crossroads of America: intermodal warehousing.

On the commercial side, meanwhile, the old Downtown has gone the way of cigar-store Indians and shoe store X-ray machines. Shopping has been centralized in regional malls, national chains have bumped the mom-and-pops, and no small town anywhere anymore can possibly be self-sufficient.

So Chesterton remains a bedroom community, only more so than it was half a century ago. To work, to shop, even to entertain ourselves, we must commute, sometimes long distances.

The charter members, of course, had no idea what lay on the other side of that rising tide of growth. They could do no better at the time than throw themselves hopefully into the task of economic development and in fact they utilized many of the tools still in use now.

In the June 30, 1955, edition of the Tribune, the Chamber had inserted the first of a series of polls on issues of local importance, in the form of clippable coupons to be mailed or brought to the newspaper’s offices “(If office is closed, drop in slot in door).” This one: “Are You For or Against the Chesterton Town Board Buying the Home Water Company?”

(In 2000 the Chamber, with the help of Lewis Dairy Queen and an Indianapolis consultancy, conducted a marketing survey of Chesterton residents: where and when do you shop? what do you buy and how much do you spend? where do you work and play? what are Chesterton’s strengths and weaknesses? The consultancy’s recommendations, based on the results of the survey: the town should aim to attract high price-point shopping and entertainment.)

In March 1956, the Tribune reported, the Chamber established an “industrial committee” with the brief of surveying “the Chesterton area for possible sites for factories and gather information about the area’s advantages and facilities of interest to a factory looking for a location.” In October 1957 the committee sent letters to 154 property owners “to find out how many will make land available for sale to industry.”

(In May 2001 Chesterton Economic Development Liaison Janet Cypra, assisted by Chamber Executive Director Laurie Franke-Polz, completed a computerized inventory of vacant buildings and available sites in town. In November of that year the inventory listed 21 buildings or sites: 85,368 vacant square feet and 107.63 empty acres.)

In July 1957, the Tribune reported, the Chamber began distribution of its first brochure “at public places, hotels, gas stations, restaurants, and Indiana Dunes State Park.” There were 10,000 of them printed—10 cents each, free to the public—and featured “a map of the area on one side in color, which is very attractive, and on the other side 16 photographs of buildings and local activities and a brief text hitting the main points of living in beautiful Chesterton.”

(In August 1999 the Duneland Economic Development Company (DEDC), the Chamber’s not-for-profit arm, unveiled Diversity in Duneland, a glossy full-color brochure designed to promote and market the area to prospective industries and businesses. The brochure included fact sheets detailing, among other things, the demographics of the region’s labor force, its local governments, its utilities, and its tax incentives.)

In December 1957, the Tribune reported, the Chamber sponsored a “What’s the Matter with Chesterton?” luncheon. “Some of the highlights of the discussion will be need of the town for annexing area in all directions: change of government from town to city for greater efficiency: consolidation of Chesterton and Porter into one municipality: possibly to include the whole area of Westchester township.” Member Fred Lochbihler “wound up the discussion with the thought that there is nothing wrong with our town except the problems that are associated with growth of any community, and that the chamber could help in the solution of these problems.”

(In November 2000 the DEDC sponsored the first of three economic development summits, attended by municipal officials, local businesspeople, and a smattering of citizens who brainstormed. Both enthusiasm and hopes ran high—at the second summit in January 2001 a five-point action plan was even formulated—but a year later the initiative had lost all steam, a planned fourth summit was never held, and the only material result, aside from Cypra’s computerized inventory, was the formation of a committee to revise the Chesterton Comprehensive Plan. The Town Council formally adopted that revision in September 2004.)

In May 1959, the Tribune reported, the Chamber took the bull by the horns and “decided to promote the building of a 25 to 50-room hotel in downtown Chesterton,” in anticipation of a demand to be created by “the coming of the steel mills, the strong possibility of a lake harbor at Burns Ditch, the existing and to-be-enlarged state park, and the growth inherent in the St. Lawrence seaway.” Chamber Secretary Ann Carter “was instructed to begin writing to hotel chains all over the country to see what interest could be aroused.”

(In May 2003 the DEDC debuted the Chesterton European Market, with the idea of making Downtown Chesterton a destination through Chicagoland and Michiana. The European Market has been a smashing success.)

The Chamber had one more trick up its sleeve, however, and this one would have been a doozy.

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Friday: Merger and Retail

 

Posted 8/25/2005