Chesterton Tribune

Chamber tried to represent whole community ‑ then and now

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(Second in a Series)

By KEVIN NEVERS

One can almost imagine—as the Board of Directors of the Chesterton Chamber of Commerce would meet at the Humpty-Dumpty restaurant—how the idea first floated to the surface: two great peoples, separated by only by a few sets of railroad tracks, stubbornly and unreasonably pursuing independent destinies.

The solution seemed to be obvious: the merger of the towns of Chesterton and Porter.

And so, at the Chamber luncheon on April 14, 1958, Paul Miller of Community Planning Consultants of Valparaiso was tapped, almost as a sacrificial lamb is tapped, to pitch the idea in public. As the Chesterton Tribune reported, “The two towns can work out common problems better than if they operate singly, he said. . . . If Porter and Chesterton combine they will form a nucleus for solid growth here which is much needed.”

One month later, on May 12, 1958, in a showing of big-tentedness, the membership voted unanimously to change the name of the body from the Chesterton to the Westchester Chamber of Commerce.

Then, on June 9, 1958, the Chamber played its trump card: a merger report prepared by Community Planning Consultants and making the fiduciary case for the combination of Chesterton and Porter, on the grounds that property-tax payers would be better served by a rationalization of municipal services. “It is estimated that approximately $18,000 or 10 percent could have been saved if the two towns had been operated as one during 1958,” as the Tribune summarized the findings of the report. “This saving could have been made without sacrifice of services . . . . On the contrary, services would probably have been better for the total community due to greater coordination of effort and more efficient use of available equipment.”

The argument made sense then and it makes sense now. Still, while no one should question the legitimacy of the Chamber Board’s concerns about governmental waste and redundancy, something else may have contributed to its eagerness to see the two towns marry. For four years the Chamber had been inviting to its luncheons guest speakers whose single breathless theme was the explosiveness of growth in Northwest Indiana. In May 1956 a senior planner of the Chicago Regional Commission projected “the doubling of population by 1980 and progressively greater industrialization,” the Tribune reported. In December 1956 a Gary “insurance man and authority on community planning” made this dire if vague prediction: “something is going to happen to the growth of the Calumet area and we don’t know what but we are going to have a lot of growth.”

The Chamber may be forgiven for thinking that, as the rising tide of growth swept through the region, tiny Chesterton would be unable to ride the wave and would be left with scraps if it didn’t join forces with the tinier Porter. Oh, and there was also that other thing: the Chamber’s 1959 agenda included, as the Tribune reported, “working with Porter to get new industry there, as Chesterton does not have the room whereas Porter does.”

Whatever its rationale, the Chamber had started the ball rolling and on Aug. 12, 1958, President Fred Lochbihler appeared before the Porter Town Board to keep it rolling. Oddly enough, exactly two weeks later he appeared before the Porter Town Board again, this time to announce the Chamber’s formal withdrawal of its support for a merger. Lochbihler gave this reason: the Chamber was unable to answer technical questions about the conversion of the municipal combination into a fifth-class city.

But perhaps Lochbihler felt a cold wind blowing. The Chamber’s members “are staying up late at night plotting ways they can get Porter,” as the Tribune quoted one Porter resident. Or as it quoted another, “It looks to me as though new people moving into the area are trying to take us over.”

Yet—without taking a position on the merger—the Chamber continued to circulate petitions to put the question to a vote. On Dec. 6, 1958, a referendum was held. In Chesterton 806 cast no ballots to 302 yes in Porter, 541 cast no to 135 yes.

An ignominious defeat but one which the Chamber refused to take to heart. Over the next 12 years it would push twice more for merger and be disappointed both times. But now the gloves were off and no pretense at all was made of easing the property-tax payer’s burden by amalgamating municipal services. Merger had become purely a defensive measure, and in this case the best defense was a good offense.

In July 1965 Chamber President George Lowery had ominous news for members. The Town of Portage was making overtures to merge all three towns into a single city, he said at a meeting. The “utter incongruity of such a union is obvious, the chamber was reminded,” as the Tribune reported, and Portage, already seeking city status, could “reach out and annex Westchester, two miles at a time, once city status has been achieved.”

In January 1966, the Tribune reported, the Chamber began to lobby for merger a second time, “with the idea of eventually through annexation having a city of the entire township” of Westchester.

And in August 1966—with a merger referendum only a month away—William Staehle, director of planning for the City of Gary, warned the Chamber that the “rural aspect” of the Chesterton and Porter “is bound to change, for better or worse,” with the appearance of Bethlehem Steel and Midwest Steel and the emergence of ancillary businesses in search of “sites near these giants and the new harbor.” Brass tacks: “New industries, new jobs, new people are in the future for the entire region,” Staehle said, “Michigan City and Chesterton are best located to be the center of business development, the shopping center of the area,” and the “failure to merge would leave two small towns caught between giants.”

On this occasion the Chamber lost by a hair. On Sept. 12, 1966, Chesterton voters cast 1,209 yes ballots to 265 no; Porter voters, 464 no to 441 yes. “Porter volunteer firemen jubilant that it was defeated drove the fire truck around town with the siren going to celebrate last night,” the Tribune reported.

(In a strange coda to the referendum, a judge ordered a second referendum held, on the strength of a petition and a 1921 law. Nothing changed. On Dec. 27, 1966, Chesterton voters cast 785 yes ballots to 170 no; Porter voters, 472 no to 409 yes.)

A third time was not the charm. In January 1970 a majority of the membership voted in favor of a merger and the Chamber formed a committee to study the question. “Merger was important to give this area a powerful voice,” the Tribune reported. “A single larger unit will have more force than a handful of smaller communities.” No dice, though. On May 5, 1970, Chesterton voters cast 789 yes ballots to 289 no; Porter voters, 327 no to 264 yes.

In September 1977 yet another committee formed by the Chamber urged not only merger—of Chesterton, Porter, and Burns Harbor—but also the annexation of the rest of Westchester Township, to create a sort of super-corporation. Such a move, according to the committee’s report, “is absolutely necessary for the orderly growth of the community.” But the Indiana General Assembly failed in its 1978 session to enact a statute which would have provided for a three-town merger and the question never came to a referendum.

The CRMA

Meanwhile, as the Chamber was going about the business of new business, long-established merchants in Downtown Chesterton were tending their own. And they had some muscle too.

In 1940 the Chesterton Retail Merchants Association (CRMA) had been founded for the purpose of representing and promoting the interests of local shopkeepers. By the time the Chamber arrived on the scene, 15 years later, the CRMA was a thriving body with an active membership and its own traditions and projects, including the sponsorship since 1953 of a jubilee in Railroad Park and, as part of the jubilee, the inauguration in 1955 of an arts and crafts fair, the forerunner of the Chesterton Art Fair. The CRMA was enterprising, committed, and—possibly—suspicious of the Chamber: what could the Chamber bring to the table that the CRMA did not? was another business organization even needed? and—not to put too fine a point on it—would the Chamber in its enthusiasm to grow Chesterton recruit a gang of cut-rate and cutthroat competitors to the Downtown?

In the early days of the Chamber, at least, the two bodies appear to have reached an uneasy détente. In November 1955, with good will to all men, the Chamber made a donation to the CRMA’s Christmas Decoration Fund. In January 1957, on the other hand, in a speech at the CRMA’s annual employees’ banquet, outgoing president David Parry counseled his fellow merchants to work with the Chamber on the “questions of fringe zoning and improving roads going in and out of town.”

To work with the Chamber, but not too closely.

When, in April 1957, the Chamber invited the CRMA to join it in endorsing the creation of a Porter County plan commission, the CRMA opted “not to go on record either for or against county planning,” as the Tribune reported. “The CRMA wants the Chesterton residents to know that they are an independent organization and are not connected with the Chesterton Chamber of Commerce.”

So there.

Some years passed. Maybe the CRMA was too belligerently autonomous. Perhaps the Chamber cherry-picked its members. Or it may just have grown tired. In any case, at some point the CRMA went quietly defunct. (The archives of the Tribune do not indicate when exactly, but in July 1961 20 merchants held a sidewalk sale in the Downtown. Neither the CRMA nor the Chamber was anywhere to be seen. Instead, 37 other “civic-minded businesses added their support to this community promotion by joining to help advertise and publicize the day,” the Tribune reported).

Not to worry, though. In April 1962 a dinner was held at Vawters Tropical Lounge in The Pines to celebrate the formation of the Chamber’s Retail Merchants Bureau. In a nod to continuity, Albert Diness, former president of the CRMA, was elected president of the Chamber later that year.

That should have been the end of the story.

But seven years later the merchants were chafing, evidently unimpressed by the dues-to-benefits ratio. In August 1969 another dinner was held, this one at The Sandpiper, to celebrate the reincarnation of the CRMA. “It was explained that the need has been felt for an organization of merchants only to cooperate on store hours, joint promotions, parking, credit and bad check policies, to mention some of their mutual problems,” the Tribune reported.

“After considerable debate, it was decided to defer the question of affiliation with the Westchester Chamber of Commerce,” the Tribune added.

That question was deferred for two years. In the meantime, the Chamber and the CRMA co-existed. At Christmas the CRMA got dibs on the Santa Parade. The Chamber got stuck with a home-decorating contest. (In 1970 the Chamber replaced cash prizes for the winners with gold, silver, and red stars suitable for hanging: “Which is better than a small cash prize,” an ad in the Tribune read, “in view of the horrid habit small money has of melting away almost instantly.”)

Then, in August 1971, rapprochement. The CRMA voted unanimously to merge with the Chamber and to become a division within that body.

That should have been the end of the story.

But four years later the merchants bolted again. In April 1975 they dusted off and gussied up the CRMA one more time, with the goal of bringing “customers the services and products they want right here, without leaving town.” And so matters stood for the rest of the decade.

In the summer of 1979 the two groups were co-sponsoring free movies in Thomas Centennial Park.

 

Posted 8/26/2005