Chesterton Tribune


Consultants urge revamp for Indiana Dunes visitor center

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The Dorothy Buell Memorial Visitor Center, which has served as the official visitor center for the Indiana Dunes since it opened its doors in 2006 at 1215 North Ind. 49, north of I-94, has the potential to be transformed into a tourist destination of its own.

Mitch Nichols of Nichols Tourism Group and Phil Weddle of Black Rock architectural firm attended the Porter County Convention, Recreation and Visitor’s Commission board meeting on Feb. 21 to show its members and representatives from the National Parks Service how using various storytelling media can grow the center’s visitor base.

Nichols and Weddle focused their presentation on five topics – offering a seamless visitor experience, expanding the existing retail configuration, enhancing the theater experience, building the Beyond the Beach initiative in the displays, and connecting the natural wetland areas outdoors.

A national consultant for tourism commissions including Grand Canyon National Park, Nichols said the redesign model proposes a more experiential environment that would meet the needs of the visitor.

“Everything is in the lens of the visitors and is driven by that,” he said.

Weddle, who specializes in the design of nature centers, said the new features are likely to have a large economic impact from increased visitation.

“The center sees about 70,000 people per year. We are only seeing a small fraction of the 3 million people that visit the Indiana Dunes each year,” Weddle said.

Assessing the center’s strengths, Nichols said the center has a good location with strong visibility from the Ind. 49 roadway.

But Nichols and Weddle pointed out areas needing improvement. Nichols said the center suffers overall from having “no clear theme,” segregated spaces, limited utilization of interpretive features, and limited connectivity to the outdoor natural areas.

“We have to position the visitor center as a destination,” Nichols said.

The experience should start as soon as a visitor enters the door, Nichols and Weddle said. Since the largest portion of visitors are here to visit the Dunes, they suggested enriching the entryway vestibule with beach accessories.

Since the space is shared jointly by the PCCRVC and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, one of the goals would be to deepen the understanding of the relationship for the visitor with a “1+1=3” mindset, Nichols said. While educating the visitor about the national park and its legacy, there can be ways to transition into other attractions in Porter County.

Nichols and Weddle said upgrades would create a linear experience for the visitors by using 3-D video graphic elements in the displays which are preferred more in today’s digital environment than standard or placard reading.

Video screens could be placed throughout the exhibit hall, the theater, and behind the reception desk, Nichols said.

The center’s theater room could be changed in multiple ways, creating smaller and more intimate displays that would be more comfortable for families than sitting in a large room by themselves, Nichols said.

Weddle said he also sees great potential in reconfiguring the look and space inside the National Lakeshore’s gift shop and bookstore which is operated by Eastern National. He suggested utilizing tall spaces would create a more “dramatic” look.

Sitting in on the meeting, Chief of Interpretation and Education for the National Lakeshore Sue Bennett said Eastern National will be willing to look at the concepts.

Adjacent to the theater and the main lobby space, Nichols suggested a “casual lounge” area in the center southwest corner where parents can sit while their children play around with the interactive displays. The lounge, Nichols suggested, would be a good place for PCCRVC to educate parents on other attractions and activities throughout the county.

In the lobby, the men suggested a discovery station and a photo exhibition area where visitors can take different theme photos of family members and send them directly to their e-mails and share them with friends and relatives.

For the outdoor area, Nichols said the PCCRVC and the national park could use pedestrian trails and walkways to connect the wetland areas to the building.

PCCRVC President Mitch Peters said the trails around the visitor center can eventually be connected to the Dunes-Kankakee Trail which has included the visitor center in its plans.

Nichols also suggested a landscape buffer along Ind. 49 to make the center more appealing to passersby.

Costs and a timeline for the renovations have not yet been determined but the board voted to approve the concepts presented to move forward with fleshing out the plan.

In other business at the meeting, the board welcomed a new member, Len Clark. Clark is Portage Mayor James Snyder’s appointment to the 9-member PCCRVC board.



Posted 3/4/2013