Chesterton Tribune

$30M Gateway to the Dunes project gets underway in Town of Porter

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“In 100 years when people live, work, play and enjoy these amenities, they won’t remember our names but will be happy the effort was undertaken,” said Mark Lopez, representing U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky.

Lopez joined other local, state and regional dignitaries Thursday to break ceremonial ground for the $30 million Gateway to the Dunes project that will create an upgraded Indiana 49 corridor from Interstate 94 north into the Indiana Dunes State Park.

Initially three new bridges displaying stylized architectural elements, including a 10 foot-wide Dunes Kankakee Trail hike/bike path separated by a barrier wall, will be built along Indiana 49, the first bridge at U.S. 20 slated for an August start and May, 2011 completion.

“A project of this magnitude must have a starting point, and today is it,” declared Lorelei Weimer, executive director of the Porter County Convention, Recreation and Visitor Commission, at whose Indiana 49 visitor center the groundbreaking took place.

Lead agency for the Gateway project is the Town of Porter.

Bruce Snyder, president of its Redevelopment Commission, said it’s an exciting time in the town’s history and the beginning of a new era of recreation, tourism, economic development and job creation not only for Porter but also its neighboring communities and the region.

Porter Town Council president Michele Bollinger said three years ago her council took office and pledged to move the town in a new direction.

“We had no clue how, when, where we’d accomplish it,” she told the approximately 60 assembled dignitaries and guests. But with Porter being “America’s front porch” to the Indiana Dunes, Bollinger said that was the logical place to begin.

The town hired consultant SEH Inc. to consolidate a vision, then formed strong relationships with Porter County, the State Park, PCCRVC, the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission and the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, the latter giving Porter $1.8 million for Phase 1 of the Gateway project. A request for $17.2 million more is pending.

RDA executive director Bill Hanna saluted the diligence and dedication of the people working to implement Visclosky’s Marquette Plan that would leverage the region’s biggest collective asset --- Lake Michigan --- to build a better future for its children.

Visclosky secured a $500,000 grant for the Gateway project, which seeks to capitalize on the 3 million annual combined visitors to the state park and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore here.

Hanna noted to say the Gateway would not be possible without the RDA is an understatement in that its $1.8 million commitment was made despite the fact Porter County is trying to withdraw from the bi-county agency.

Lopez said the Gateway is about jobs: from engineering/design through construction creating places for tourists to eat, sleep and visit, prompting some of them to move here and more businesses to locate here to serve them.

Final trail route needed

Weimer said the Indiana Department of Transportation is a key partner on the Gateway project because it agreed to provide room for the future Dunes Kankakee Trail on its new bridges even though trail funding and routing have yet to be finalized.

The trail would extend the length of Porter County and end at the Kankakee River as a strong quality-of life-enhancement and economic engine along its route, continued Weimer. “If we can just find another $20 million, we’ll have this project completed in no time.”

SEH consultant A.J. Monroe said the trail would begin at the State Park entrance at the Indiana 49/U.S. 12 bridge and continue four miles through the Town of Porter where a route is being studied, likely ending at the town’s planned Orchard Pedestrian Way hike/bike trail at Woodlawn Avenue and Waverly Road.

There it crosses into the Town of Chesterton’s jurisdiction. Town Council member Emerson DeLaney, who attended the groundbreaking with fellow Councilman Jim Ton and town attorney Chuck Lukmann, said Chesterton’s route also is undecided.

Ton said while there’s been some push-back to routing the Dunes Kankakee Trail through Chesterton’s downtown, “It’s obviously in our best interest to get (trail users) downtown.”

Both councilmen said when a route is set and a cost estimate in hand, grant money for engineering/construction would be sought.

Monroe said the trail is an example of how tourists could be encouraged to move through the communities and enjoy their amenities without having to get in a car; an alternative transportation study is part of the Gateway plans.

So is future reconstruction by INDOT of Indiana 49, now a non-descript, four-lane highway with no visual interest, from Interstate 94 north to the State Park entrance so tourists know something exciting’s ahead.

Speaking at the groundbreaking, INDOT district deputy commissioner Mike McPhillips pledged his agency will work in a cooperative way with the Gateway working group and be a good partner.

Gateway intended to create jobs

A key element of the overall project is the Porter Town Council’s stated goal: economic development. The Indiana 49 work scope is expanded for planning purposes onto adjacent U.S. 20.

Matt Reardon of SEH confirmed after Thursday’s ceremony there’s been interest from developers, however, “I think the development community is taking a wait-and-see attitude.”

A final Gateway plan first has to be put into the marketplace so developers know what Porter’s selling; where hotels and other recreational opportunities are desired first need to be determined before private investment is part of the experience that follows.

“It’s like catching a tiger by the tail; there’s a lot going on,” explained Reardon.

Asked about the shuttered Splash Down Dunes water park that sits idle west of Indiana 49 at U.S. 20 and Waverly Road, Reardon said the site is a superior location although it might take a little more diligence on a private investor’s part to use it, yet the general area is as close to the dunes as commercial development can get.

Monroe said the Gateway planners are keeping in mind that the Indiana 49/U.S. 20 corridors support a working economy and should maintain a level of service to sustain it. However, the character of the roadways can be made more attractive to expand and enhance visitation.

Snyder hinted additional announcements could be forthcoming. “Stay tuned. There’s more to come.”

The groundbreaking opened with an invocation by Pastor Jeff Voegtlin of Fairhaven Baptist Church. He thanked God for the beauty of the area and the opportunity to put it on display for visitors, and he asked blessings on the people who work on the Gateway projects.



Posted 7/2/2010