Chesterton Tribune                                                                                   Adv.

Tourist money coveted in Gateway to the Dunes plan

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By PAULENE POPARAD

The Town of Porter’s Gateway to the Dunes project got its first public vetting Wednesday before a crowd of 30 persons who heard consultants repeat a consistent theme: tourists, tourists, tourists.

Hotels, family retreats, business conference centers, wayfinding signage, aesthetic enhancements, alternate transportation options, traffic modifications, indoor/outdoor water experiences --- all keyed to luring, keeping and entertaining visitors who’ll spend their dollars here 12 months of the year.

So where’s the advantage for local residents?

According to Kerry Keith of consultant Short Elliott Hendrickson Inc., the 3 million people who annually visit the state and federal parks can’t be ignored.

“Currently we don’t manage what we do with them. What if we managed them better? If we do, that increases the quality of life for everyone,” Keith said.

Porter is lead agency for the Gateway project having received an initial $1.8 million from the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority for Phase 1, which includes four studies; an additional $17.2 million RDA request is pending for additional work including construction of Porter’s leg of the new Dunes Kankakee Trail.

Comment especially was sought Wednesday one-on-one with consultants regarding possibilities for development within a 600-acre zone generally along Indiana 49 between I-94 and U.S. 20. The sub-area extends east and west of Tremont Road and west to the shuttered Splash Down Dunes water park.

About 140 of the 600 acres are developable, according to Gregg Calpino of consulting partner JJR.

Guiding principles are driving what will be recommended there, he added, such as a desire to enhance the gateway with pedestrian-friendly, environmentally sound infrastructure along Indiana 49 like a roundabout.

Additional considerations are transforming transportation corridors, possibly by reducing lanes but adding planted medians and landscaped right-of-way for a more intimate feel, and building new development that complements, not detracts from, existing businesses and downtowns.

New/upgraded attractions and experiences that would entice visitors to extend their stay here are also part of Gateway mix.

Highway amenities lacking

A.J. Monroe of SEH said despite the Interstate 94 exit onto northbound Indiana 49 being the main entrance to the Indiana Dunes State Park, the first intersection motorists encounter --- Oak Hill Road --- looks like Anytown USA with no hint of the natural beauty that awaits.

“"The gateway needs to be an enhanced part of the park, not sitting on its fringe,” said Monroe.

The State Park plans to continue its own entrance upgrades from the new gatehouse south to U.S. 12, reducing Indiana 49’s current four lanes to two making way for the proposed Dunes Kankakee Trail.

From that point of Indiana 49 south, intensive brainstorming is going on with multiple stakeholders and partners, advised Monroe, aimed at reaching consensus on great ideas --- achievable ideas --- that will permanently affix Duneland on the travel map.

“You do not need to drive to New Buffalo to experience Lake Michigan,” Monroe explained. “That experience can start in Porter County.”

But one thing must be kept in mind, he cautioned. Gateway solutions are grounded in the engineering reality that local highways serve local traffic, too, and commerce still needs to travel the Indiana 49/U.S. 20 corridor.

In order to avoid bottlenecks at the State Park, alternate ways of getting in and out will be explored also.

Do more with what’s there

One assumption is clear, said Monroe. “We’re not building any more parking lots in the dunes.”

Illinois Prairie Club members had the right idea coming to the Indiana dunes on South Shore trains decades ago, he noted, and today’s transportation planners need to find a way back to that philosophy.

Calpino said the Dune Park South Shore train station east of Indiana 49 at U.S. 12 has a large footprint already that could capitalize on building up, not out, for more parking, lodging or food services.

A designated location could become a hub for transit-oriented development where routed buses, bicycle rentals, skis in winter, info on canoe rentals and adequate signage convey where and how tourists can move about Duneland.

The nearby Calumet Trail, not quite the experience it could be, according to consultants, is eyed for improvements as negotiations between involved entities are clearing the last hurdles.

Likewise, trailheads where visitors enter the Calumet and other future trails need to be welcoming, not hard to find, consultants added, so visitors can hike/bike into area downtowns and locals can use the trails to visit the parks.

Splash Down future uncertain

To date a main draw in the Gateway sub-area has been Splash Down Dunes, idled this year after 2009’s ownership battles and Porter County Health Department citations.

The property went up for sheriff’s sale Wednesday, said Matt Reardon of SEH. He later told the Chesterton Tribune the town couldn’t purchase it because of the steep minimum asking price but Porter has continued interest what will happen there. He indicated a water park is not the best use of the property at that location, but the sub-area planning process can determine what is.

Keith later said the real challenge may be to “change our own mindset. We are our own worst enemies. People need to see this is real. This is not pretend projects.”

But they do have limitations. Keith agreed U.S. 20 through Porter is a designated heavy-haul truck route which generally discourages pedestrian interaction. For this reason Gateway planning may necessitate jurisdictional changes or redesigns, he explained.

Resident Bruce Brackney said he attended last night because, “I wanted to learn more. I’m directly affected by the plan and I’m a little concerned trying to figure out how it would affect me. Mostly, I’m interested to know where the money is coming from to pay for it.”

Porter’s Joe Goysich commented, “I do like the plan. Some things I kind of question, like the traffic flow of Indiana 49 northbound.” He and wife Connie reminded Keith that when I-94 temporarily is shut down, U.S. 20 is the popular detour so it has to maintain its level of service.

Porter Redevelopment Commission president Bruce Snyder welcomed those assembled and echoed comments he made at the July 1 groundbreaking for the first Phase 1 Gateway project, $180,000 in stylized enhancements on the new Indiana 49 bridge over U.S. 20 to be started soon.

Snyder described the overall Gateway plan as an exciting vision for Porter and a story of cooperation never seen before in this area.

 

 

Posted 7/29/2010

 

 

 

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