Duneland Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Maura Durham, left, and Indiana Dunes Tourism Director Lorelei Weimer pose in front of two railroad cars that will enhance Chesterton's downtown. The redcaboose will house children's activities and the black boxcar will be a restroom facility. Staff photo by Doug Ross
Doug Ross, Times of Northwest Indiana Senior Reporter
CHESTERTON — Downtown Chesterton is at the center of an effort to develop communities’ downtowns and identities.
“We’re doing a pilot program right now” in Chesterton, Indiana Dunes Tourism Executive Director Lorelei Weimer said.
“The motivation unfortunately came when Kmart closed and we had a couple of other businesses turn over, specifically in downtown Chesterton,” Durham said.
Community members and business owners were asking about the plan of attack to fill vacant storefronts downtown, so Durham decided to dust off a study on branding and downtown development done for Porter County about a decade ago.
Roger Brooks study
Consultant Roger Brooks, working with the Destination Development Association, is no stranger to Northwest Indiana. He helped Valparaiso develop its downtown park, and he’s working with Michigan City on developing the downtown plaza there.
The study that Durham dusted off was a major undertaking. All municipalities, with the exception of Dune Acres and Beverly Shores, participated, Weimer said.
The project was done with the help of a state grant, but it required local funding from the Porter County Economic Alliance, Indiana Dunes Tourism and the municipalities.
Roger Brooks' team sent mystery shoppers to take a look at each community, including aspects the locals might miss.
The idea was to develop a brand for each town that offered marketing potential and captured the flavor of each town. In some towns, the product being marketed needed more work than others.
Each town’s theme
The study offered a theme for each community along with recommendations.
Burns Harbor: Green living/new urbanism. Enhance the “green” brand with a pedestrian-friendly downtown with gathering places, more residential properties, green festivals, and more.
Chesterton: Eclectic arts and shopping, an events destination. Create the critical mass of galleries, shops and restaurants downtown; provide permanent structures for the European Market and expand it.
Hebron: Pioneering spirit in the past and into the future. Enhance the downtown with pioneer-related experiences, develop fishing and recreational opportunities along the Kankakee River, development a façade enhancement program, and recruit businesses.
Kouts: Country village. Create a village center with a plaza area. Recruit at least one outstanding retail store or restaurants, develop Kankakee River access and expand Pork Fest.
Pines: Retro ‘50s theme. Recruit a soda shop with a gift store, establish visual buffers, and use ‘50s-themed signage to enhance the ambiance.
Portage: Nautical theme with connection between newly developed downtown and Lake Michigan. Build the nautical theme throughout the city, including enhancement of the downtown and marina, plus festivals and other activities.
Porter: Family focus and recreation. Encourage restaurants to be open to families, work to develop recreational opportunities, recruit additional downtown businesses and build a small amphitheater at the park.
Valparaiso: Hip, happening downtown with nightlife, dining and entertainment. Create gateways into the downtown district, enhance with business recruitment and beautification, and continue development of the park for events, concerts, etc.
Connecting them all should be a series of trails. The county is working on a north-south option.
“Valparaiso is sitting in the center of the county literally with no connection to any of the other communities,” Weimer said.
Some of the municipalities have made more headway than others. Valparaiso, for example, has expanded the downtown park with the addition of an outdoor ice rink that is used for other events the rest of the year.
Portage Mayor James Snyder said the city’s new downtown is developing quickly.
“We have two restaurants opening soon in our downtown,” he said.
“We had a festival every weekend in our downtown” this fall, Snyder said.
All summer long, there was something going on at the amphitheater at Founders Square every Friday and Sunday, he said.
In Chesterton, the challenge is to follow Brooks’ advice of having something to do downtown. A water feature, such as a splash pad, can help. So can scheduling concerts, movies in the park, festivals, art exhibits and other events.
The Chesterton group has been active about a year. Weimer said the group was advised to expect to take a couple of arrows in the back and to have to do hard work. The members said once a month wasn’t often enough; they needed to meet more often to get the job done.
On Nov. 12, the results of a survey of residents will be unveiled. The survey, which asked about the downtown and what people wanted to see there, drew 1,356 responses.
“That kind of response rate is phenomenal,” Weimer said.
Residents are looking for more diversity in restaurants, she said. They want façade improvements, too.
A lot of people wanted the Wizard of Oz festival back.
Silencing train horns was a popular idea.
“People were literally writing that in any way they could,” Weimer said. “Clearly, people are saying those trains are taking away from the quality of life downtown.”
A noisy train drove by while Durham was talking with The Times in her office, interrupting the conversation.
Progress in Chesterton
The committee in Chesterton is talking with the Park Board and Town Council, urging them to develop new comprehensive plans a year or two early, Durham said. Public input is a part of that process.
Durham is eager to get things done, like providing music every day and having Wi-Fi available throughout the downtown.
Business owners, too, need to buy in to the plan, she said. They need to realize who they put downtown as tenants changes the flavor of downtown, she said. Foot traffic on the ground floor is essential to the success of the downtown. Retail boutiques, art galleries and other high-traffic shops will improve the overall health of downtown.
“You can’t have all service in your downtown because then there’s no reason to go there for foot traffic,” Durham said.
Weimer hopes other communities will follow Chesterton's example.
Other communities in the Duneland area, including Burns Harbor, are interested in following Chesterton’s lead, Durham said.
Burns Harbor officials are looking for a master developer to help build its downtown. They want Brooks’ advice to work.