Chesterton Tribune

Family friendly: Porter polishing town's image and brand

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Would bringing back the Porter 4th of July midnight parade as a family-friendly event be the kind of unique attraction that brands the town as a great place to live and visit?

That was one suggestion heard Wednesday as community volunteers sought input on how to make Porter a destination focus for bringing one’s family --- and raising one’s family, too.

About 20 persons engaged in a free-wheeling exchange of observations and ideas at the invitation of the town’s Branding Leadership Team. Working with Porter County Tourism, the tag line Front Porch to the Dunes is being used with an Adirondak chair logo to convey a welcoming Porter experience awaits.

Of nine Porter County cities and towns participating, Porter was chosen to use the family-focus/recreation brand because of the strength of its Hawthorne Park, considered a jewel in the community, and because of the proximity of an historic downtown that just might have the most restaurants/bars per capita around.

Possible Hawthorne offerings such as a splash pool/skating rink, outdoor performance area for children’s theater and a Frisbee golf course would make a good thing even better for residents and tourists alike, according to Porter County Tourism executive director Lorelei Weimer.

She estimated if just 5 percent of the day visitors to the Indiana Dunes State Park stay at least two nights locally, that would result in a $20 million injection of revenue to businesses annually.

To that end Porter is spearheading the $30 million Gateway to the Indiana Dunes project that would transform the Indiana 49/U.S. 20 corridors north of Interstate 94 to attract tourists, create jobs for area residents and diversify the town tax base.

Business development is what Porter needs, said town director of engineering Matt Keiser.

With large tracts of land previously taken by the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, he explained, the opportunity for Porter to develop with a typical industrial/commercial base and generate more town revenue was lost. That’s why Porter’s property tax rate is one of the highest around because it’s mainly supported by residential uses, said Keiser.

But what Porter does have, said speakers, is Lake Michigan and two state/federal parks that draw 3 million combined visitors a year, so why not make the most of it?

Branding Team member Bill Sexton said the same Hawthorne Park amenities and the nearby Little Calumet River and woods that provided a source of fun and discovery for him as a child growing up in Porter can offer even more varied experiences for future generations.

“The park has been a part of me and other people in this community. Hawthorne Park --- Porter Park --- this is where they end up,” he told the audience.

Resident Elka Nelson suggested adding movies, concerts and storytelling as park activities, and Heather Augustyn said chess is popular with youngsters so paint chess boards on the concrete for play. Zathoe Sexton said local service organizations could sponsor a hometown picnic, while Park Board/Branding Team member Patty Raffin said rotating restaurant vendors could offer their selections at Hawthorne throughout the summer.

The Chesterton Art Fair has been located in Porter for years, said Weimer and Sexton, so why not start a tradition of its own by having groups sponsor real Adirondak chairs creatively decorated with individual themes and displayed throughout the town similar to the popular Chicago cow art exhibit?

Initially Porter’s July 4 midnight parade with few marchers grabbed headlines for its uniqueness, but as its popularity grew so did its problems, ending with thousands crammed into the downtown and many refusing to leave even after the bars had closed causing trouble for residents.

No one has come forward to resurrect the parade, but Keiser speculated it could be brought back with some tight restrictions so former excesses don’t repeat themselves. Sexton offered to help a sponsor in that effort, and resident Karen Pisowicz said, “I’d love to see it back.”

Porter has its own downtown master plan in the works, and Weimer said wayfinding signage, more sidewalks, historic markers and the potential for connectivity with the South Shore train station can make a good thing better.

Porter’s already-vibrant night life at the downtown’s restaurants and bars was noted, but resident Bill Cantrell said they need to be made handicapped accessible and suggested offering grants for retrofits like Porter town government and the Chesterton/Duneland Chamber of Commerce are offering for facade improvements.

Branding Team member Porter resident Heather Ennis, also the Chamber executive director, reminded that the team is a non-political group with no revenue stream of its own but would gladly facilitate contacts and ideas.

The potential synergy of adding family-oriented daytime businesses in Porter’s downtown to supplement the more-adult evening uses was raised. Keiser said the downtown, primarily along Lincoln Street, is hemmed in by railroads to its south and parking is at capacity now but infill lots do exist.

While Keiser initially said moving businesses into Franklin Street north of Lincoln would not be a good fit for Porter, an audience member described the success of old town Glendale, AZ where a special district was created for historic cottages there blending residential with small-scale tourist retail and restaurants.


Posted 4/7/2011