Chesterton Tribune

Citizens debate Chesterton's future

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By PAULENE POPARAD

GK Development consultant Valerie Kretchmer said bringing a 351,419 square foot retail mall to Chesterton should help, not hurt, existing businesses, especially in its historic downtown.

But mall opponents asked if her comparison was apples to apples, or apples to lemons?

Then again, mall supporters said the jobs that the mall will bring are too good to pass up in challenging economic times.

Kretchmer compared the likely impact to Chesterton retailers by using big-box commercial developments built in Morris and Antioch, both Illinois, and in Valparaiso, areas she called comparable communities. She said merchants in Valparaiso indicated big-box retailers there generated traffic that brought more shoppers into their downtown.

The key, she said, is to monitor what mall stores are selling and not to duplicate that merchandise. In the two Illinois examples, Wal-Mart Supercenters were in the community. Despite that, their downtowns remained viable with little or no vacancies although grocery sales declined, she added.

Kretchmer said Chesterton will see population growth and by having customer-friendly hours and service as well as unique merchandise, Chesterton’s 32 downtown stores can survive and thrive, especially if the popular outdoor European Market continues to draw crowds here.

During public comment, local downtown business owner Frank Sessa said, “I really don’t see this project as a detriment to the downtown. Let’s not pick on the shopping center for shops failing.” He estimated since 1977 about 50 small businesses have gone out of business.

Joan Carpenter said GK should work with the Chesterton/Duneland Chamber of Commerce and possibly a shuttle service between the mall and downtown could be offered.

Mall proponent Jim Kowalski said in his 30 years living here Chesterton’s downtown hasn’t changed. “It’s a special area. It’s going to be there and it’ll stay there.” But it isn’t a sleepy little town any more, he added. The town needs new tax base to support its residential development, added Kowalski, and part-time jobs are needed, especially for teenagers who now have to drive out of town to find them.

Eric Koeger, chairman of the Chesterton Hometown Improvement Program, said both the town’s quality of life and new business development can co-exist. He said it’s not up to us to decide if we need a Target or Kohl’s, rather it’s the town’s role to do it responsibly by requiring high standards. “If they’ve met them and are willing to be partners in our community, I urge you to approve their plan.”

Several residents said they objected to GK’s lack of imagination in choosing Target and Kohl’s for their main anchors feeling other stores would be more desirable. Said Laura DeSousa, “They’re giving us a very pretty development, pretty boxes with the same stuff inside.” As did a few others, “I realize this is pretty much a done deal. I’ve resigned myself to that,” she said.

George Maney voiced support; he said the elderly need a place to shop and having a mall close by will enable the town to keep their money here.

Downtown business owner Marjory Crawford said of Illinois-based GK, “It’s all for their advantage, not ours.” Valparaiso’s downtown is home to the county seat, she also noted, which generates traffic of its own. With GK on the State Road 49 bypass, “What happens to downtown Chesterton when everyone bypasses us?”

Kelly Rivera is co-owner of Top Hat Tuxedo. She said ongoing issues like the lack of downtown parking should be addressed before a new mall. “I’m all for making money, but make it somewhere else,” she told GK representatives.

Several residents speaking would live near the mall either east of it on County Road 1100N or Dickinson Road, in Tamarack subdivision to the west, or along County Road 100 E that intersects Rail Road.

Some of those speaking said the vacant stores in Valparaiso’s northside County Seat Mall, which is being sold and renovated, is the impact of big-box development on that city’s east side. Al Riolo said Chesterton’s west side is “basically dead” after WiseWay relocated. “Big corporations suck the lifeblood out of small retailers,” he stated.

Nada Karas of Lucrezia restaurant in Chesterton said Target and Kohl’s don’t fit our community. “I don’t want Merrillville here. Leave it for Merrillville.”

Agreed James Oates, “I don’t want to live along (U.S.) 6 in Portage. Chesterton is a home community. We came here to escape those things. We can drive. Our town is a community of people living here. It’s not a community of strip malls.”

George Manning, owner of two downtown antique shops, said the GK proposal isn’t right for Chesterton. “This meeting is an outcry. There is an ill-balanced plan here. We need to think downtown, old town.” He proposed a referendum.

While some speakers welcomed the mall’s opportunities for employment, mall opponents said the majority of jobs will be low-paying and part-time, not the kind that will enable families to live here and afford a home. The area needs clean, high-tech jobs that pay more, speakers said.

Some of the 50 acres the GK PUD would rezone, 40 of it for retail, is now zoned industrial. Commission member Jeff Trout asked landowner John Ameling if he ever had tried to market his industrial acreage. Ameling said no. “I didn’t think it’s in the best interest of the town and I still don’t.”

Controlled development was supported as desirable, but this isn’t it, said mall opponents. Others felt the quality of life and peace of mind they enjoy would be shattered by thousands of mall shoppers, and that crime might follow, overburdening town services and police.

Tom O’Keefe said if the town had problems with a three-day Wizard of Oz Festival, how can it hope to cope with the impact of a major retail mall here every day? He said planned development of the Gary/Chicago Airport can have positive benefits for Chesterton if it is patient, rather than “putting a noose around our neck” now.

The comments of Maureen Foos, who lives adjacent to GK land, drew applause. “My main plea is, turn this down.” She said surveyors working for GK arrogantly placed survey stakes on her land. “They figure they have us in their pocket.” She also said blue heron and salmon who frequent the area and creek will suffer.

With about 30 vehicles per minute coming to the area, Foos said, the Pioneer Trail intersection, even with improvements funded by GK, won’t work and she suggested a roundabout. She called for a separate traffic indicator for pedestrians and cyclists to cross State Road 49, and for planted berms to separate properties.

Michael Foos, who spoke as a proponent, said environmental concerns existing now could be improved by mall construction, and he asked that Dickinson Road to the east not be extended south of County Road 1100N.

Yet Dan Hager said Chesterton is being over-developed and the mall is a symptom. “We don’t need it. Please take your mall someplace else.”

 

 

Posted 2/23/2006

 

 

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