Whiting — the city with the wit to create Pierogi Fest and a parade featuring entries such as the Twirling Babushka Brigade — is betting tourists will love its silly and wacky Mascot Hall of Fame.
Now, Mayor Joseph Stahura is working on a national marketing effort to sell the concept — and his city — to potential partners to raise $4.7 million in private funds for interior exhibits.
Build-a-Bear has developed a prototype Reggy, the official mascot of the Mascot Hall of Fame. If the concept moves forward, visitors could build a Reggy. In addition, the National League East Philadelphia Phillies and the American League Central Cleveland Indians are the first sports teams to commit.
"Seven or eight more teams are in discussions. We are working to get the Chicago teams involved," Stahura said.
The cost of the building under construction on Front Avenue at the intersection of 119th Street is supported with an $8.5 million bond issue to be repaid with revenue from a tax increment financing (TIF) district. Stahura acknowledges BP for its tax support.
"BP knows our project well and will be involved at the tax level. It is fully engaged and lent their name. Without their tax dollars, we wouldn't be here. We are looking for corporate, philanthropic and educational partners," Stahura said. "We have made significant headway, but I was unaware of the amount and number of meetings it takes to close a deal with a potential partner. The corporate interest is mind-boggling. I have to wrestle with the corporate timelines and the priorities of their foundations versus their marketing strategies."
When he talks to corporations, he is learning that a lot of them have characters of their own. "An animated character usually ends up with someone in a costume. Tony the Tiger, the Fruit of the Loom characters, the Pillsbury Doughboy. We have every intention of creating a category for them (in the Mascot Hall of Fame). They are not technically mascots, but they display and promote a brand."
So far, 40 to 50 corporations have been approached and have expressed an interest.
Though fundraising is serious work for Stahura, the Mascot Hall of Fame is designed to be nothing but fun for its visitors, from the whimsical exterior featuring Reggy to the fantastical interior filled with hands-on activities designed for children 12 and under.
Jack Rouse Associates handles the planning, design and project management for the Mascot Hall of Fame. A few of JRA's other projects include the Kohl Children's Museum in Glenview, Ill., LEGOLAND California, Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago, and Universal Studios Florida.
"There will be a huge educational component," Stahura said. "When you do that, the key is to create exhibits with an educational context. We also partnered with Trine University in Angola, Ind. They have developed a general educational outline with health and fitness and STEAM (Science Technology Engineering Arts Math) components."
The concept is themed "Mascot University," according to Stahura. Visitors begin their experience in the Freshman Orientation and wind their way through the Science of Silliness Lab, the Dept. of Furry Arts and Phuzzical Education. Each area features hands-on activities. There also will be indoor playgrounds, a 50-seat theater and a flex room for receptions or small parties. The entire venue will be available to rent for events.
Eight or nine kiosks in the shape of mascots will be located on the top floor. The technical goal is to ultimately have each kiosk link the Hall of Fame to a similar kiosk in the mascot's stadium home.
"The building was never meant to be reverent. The place is supposed to be absolutely as fun and entertaining as possible," Stahura said. "There will be confetti cannons that can be timed to go off when a group is arriving (for example)."
Illustrations of the interior were released this week and they depict the whimsical world of mascots. The colorful renderings show giant mascot heads suspended from the ceiling over the atrium and offer a glimpse into the Mascot Hall of Fame activity.
The brick and mortar project is a little more than three years in the making, Stahura said. However, the Hall of Fame was born a few years earlier on the internet where it was founded in 2005 by Dave Raymond of Raymond Entertainment Group of Philadelphia. Raymond also performed as the Phillie Phanatic for 16 years before starting his mascot branding business.
Stahura's team found the Mascot Hall of Fame website and Raymond Entertainment Group while searching for a concept to energize the city. Raymond was intrigued at the prospect of expanding on his website concept. He said he had been considering developing the Mascot Hall of Fame into a mobile tour. He was talking with companies about building a tractor trailer rig when he got the call from Whiting.
Now, Raymond has added the title of national campaign director, and he's focused on connecting with colleges, universities, major and minor league sports teams and individuals.
"I'm looking for philanthropic support. We've been charged with raising $4.7 million, which is the cost of the exhibits. We had a gift from the Philadelphia Phillies and the Cleveland Indians just came on board. We are talking to the Cubs, Bulls, Blackhawks, White Sox and the Bears and Chicago Sky, the WNBA team. We want to make sure the local community is supporting it," Raymond said.
As the building begins to take shape, Raymond said, "this has exceeded all the dreams, for sure."
The front of the building will feature mascot Reggy, with his signature french fry hairdo. Reggy will be a major player in the Hall of Fame.
The Mascot Hall of Fame project is a massive undertaking, and Stahura said he is learning it is equally important to be able to sell the City of Whiting as a destination to potential partners.
Stahura, standing on the corner of 119th Street in front of the building under construction, pointed out the Mascot Hall of Fame's location is just a short walk south of the completed $50 million lakefront redevelopment and east of the completed $8.5 million Oil City Stadium on 119th Street. On the horizon for the Stadium District are new residential units, new mixed-use commercial buildings, restaurants and office space.
All of this helps fuel the area, according to Stahura, who added that Whiting has liquor licenses available and its master plan calls for a lakefront hotel and restaurant.
Stahura said he is confident that Whiting is the perfect spot. About 250,000 people visit the city every year just for Pierogi Fest.
"We have 9.5 million people within a one-hour drive," Stahura said. "When you look at the demographics of the area, this is workable. With Chicago right here, the opportunity is massive. Our experience with Pierogi Fest gives us hope. They are coming from all over the country and a dozen foreign countries. Foreign visitors time their trips to Chicago around Pierogi Fest. All the hotels from here to Michigan City are filled. You struggle to find a hotel."
"We are going to open about a year from now," said Al Spajer, executive director of the Mascot Hall of Fame. "Right now the building is coming to life. The place will be fabulous when it opens. It will be a place for kids and families to come and do and come and see. It will be hands-on."