Motorists cross Lake County on the Indiana Toll Road, not really seeing any destinations or reasons to exit, writes columnist Jerry Davich. (Jerry Davich/Post-Tribune)
Motorists cross Lake County on the Indiana Toll Road, not really seeing any destinations or reasons to exit, writes columnist Jerry Davich. (Jerry Davich/Post-Tribune)
When was the last time, or maybe the only time, you exited the Indiana Toll Road in Lake County for entertainment or recreation? Possibly for a casino boat on Lake Michigan or for a RailCats baseball game in Gary?

I’m asking in regard to a new marketing campaign launched by the Indiana Toll Road, South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, and several Hoosier counties to promote tourism and economic development along Interstate-80/90. This toll road runs from the Illinois state line to the Ohio state line

I travel it routinely to Chicago, mostly for recreation and entertainment reasons, and to Granger, where my daughter and son-in-law have lived for the past few years. I know this highway very well, as well as its mile-marker exits in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties in our region.

I drove it again last week, specifically for this column, driving through Lake County to remind myself why I rarely exit in Hammond (exit 3), in East Chicago or Gary (exit 10), or in Lake Station (exit 17). And when I do, it isn’t for recreation or entertainment. It’s usually for work-related reasons, or to get to a destination faster, albeit costlier.

I doubt that many out-of-state or out-of-county motorists traveling along the toll road in Lake County get enticed enough by a billboard or exit sign to hit the brakes and pull off. Maybe for a casino boat in Hammond, Gary or East Chicago, I’m guessing. Otherwise, for what?

“Look, honey! Are those steel mill smokestacks? I’ve been telling the kids about those for years. Let’s turn off here.”

No, of course not.

The elevated toll road travels over north Lake County for a reason. It’s to get through it as fast as possible in order to get somewhere else. This isn’t merely my skeptical opinion. It’s proven again and again by tens of thousands of speeding motorists each week.

My guess is that few of them find anything interesting to look at. For instance, pretend for a moment that you are not a resident of Northwest Indiana, and that you’re taking your first trip along the Indiana Toll Road in our congested corner of the state.

Last week, I tried to look at everything with fresh eyes and newfound curiosity. What’s this? What’s that? Where does that exit lead? What is beyond those trees or train tracks or smokestacks? I even took photos along the way, as if I were an inquisitive tourist.

I did my best to pretend for as long as possible. I noticed billboards for a few attractions. Unfortunately, those attractions were for Indiana Beach in Monticello, the Lion’s Den adult super store in Hebron, and Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, Mich.

In other words, keep driving through Lake County to get to those places.

“The Indiana Toll Road is a quick and easy way to get from the Illinois border to the Ohio border,” Speros Batistatos, president/CEO of the South Shore CVA said in a statement related to the new marketing campaign. “And this is a great opportunity for telling the story of Indiana and all the stops travelers can make along the way.&rdquo

True, but even the toll road billboards in Lake County are directing motorists to visit places outside the county. Obviously, this is partly why the new marketing campaign is needed, especially in our region.

“The partnership is a natural fit to showcase the brand new Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, lakefront casinos, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, University of Notre Dame, Studebaker National Museum and Pokagon State Park, among others along the route,” Batistatos said.

The millions of motorists who travel daily along I-80/90 will now see a “cohesive brand” featuring destinations from Lake County to Steuben County. I’ve noticed the $70 million restoration project of eight travel plaza buildings. These facilities were in dire need of an upgrade, especially compared to travel plazas in other states I’ve visited.

“We look forward to helping increase awareness of Indiana’s unique attractions and outdoor activities through this partnership,” Bill McCall, spokesman for the Indiana Toll Road, said in a statement.

Other Indiana counties have an easier job coaxing motorists off the toll road, I say. Even if it’s for “unique” attractions that embody folksy Hoosier stereotypes – Amish country, Shipshewana shopping, and state park campgrounds.

The partnership’s marketing campaign uses photos and videos to highlight these destinations along the toll road, with “things to do” aired on TV monitors at travel plazas, and a slick website, www.along8090.com.

That website is a great start, listing destination suggestions at every exit for motorists. Unfortunately, again, in Lake County, the suggested destinations are underwhelming or too far away – three lakefront casino boats, Whiting Lakefront Park, Bellaboos play center, Albanese candy factory, and the tourism welcome center (off Interstate 94).

The only other highlighted destination is the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, which I visited soon after it opened. I came away very impressed with its design, creativity, educational aspects, and interactive exhibits for kids and adults alike. It’s top notch.

Trouble is, guests have to drive through what seems like an industrial wasteland to finally arrive at the flashy, colorful attraction. It stands out like a newborn baby in a century-old cemetery. If anything, it can serve as the de facto mascot for Lake County’s efforts to attract tourism along the toll road.

Erika Dahl, director of communications for South Shore CVA, told me, “You know we are up to any task, no matter how big or small.”

This task reflects much larger problems facing north Lake County -- its image, reputation and destination possibilities.

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