Efforts are reportedly underway to build a convention center in Highland without using any taxpayer money, according to Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott.
At the close of his State of the City address Thursday, McDermott said he is working with Speros Batistatos, CEO of the South Shore Convention & Visitors Authority, to bring a convention center to Highland, Hammond’s neighboring community, without the Lake County Council needing to pass a food and beverage tax.
Neither McDermott nor Kathy DeGuilio-Fox, Highland's regional development director, returned calls for comment on Friday to explain how the projected $60 million project would be funded, and Batistatos didn't give any specifics although he did say he has talked to various officials about the possible project.
Batistatos said the 25-acre site at Kennedy Avenue and Interstate 94 in Highland may be the most fiscally viable for a convention center at this point. But he also said talks for the Highland site are in the very preliminary stages and ideas are still alive for some of the other sites recommended by the firm Convention Sports & Leisure Inc. in its Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority-backed study on the feasibility of having a convention center in Lake County.
"I'm not committed to this project to the absence of all others," Batistatos said, adding, "There are a lot of moving pieces. I wouldn't mark a groundbreaking date as yet."
The Highland location was named the fourth of five best sites to build a convention center in Lake County in the independent study released last summer. Also named were the former Radisson complex site at Interstate 65 and U.S. 30 in Merrillville, the Century Plaza location at Broadway and U.S. 30 in Merrillville, the Silverstone property just northeast of the U.S. 30 and Mississippi Street intersection in Hobart and Buffington Harbor in Gary. A location in Crown Point was also mentioned.
The study's authors said the county could support a 70,000-square-foot convention center and estimated it would cost about $58 million to build.
Batistatos said the Hobart and Crown Point sites are still alive and he's always liked the Century Mall location because all the infrastructure is already in and he's fairly confident its owners, Tri-Land Development, will bring money to the table.
Tri-Land has said it could transform the vacant Burlington Coat Factory building into a convention center at much less than the projected $58 million cost.
White Lodging, the owner of the former Radisson site, is hoping to build a multi-use development at that location and the City of Gary is looking to turn Burffington Harbor into an intermodal hub.
Batistatos said the Highland site has 500 hotel rooms already built there on the Hammond side and a new bridge will be constructed, making the area pedestrian-friendly.
He said with the bridge, the Kennedy Avenue corridor could connect Purdue University's Hammond campus on the north to Highland's downtown and its restaurants and retail shops on the south.
"Another one of the advantages is you would have two communities working together," Batistatos said.
The independent study's authors said the Highland site is close to existing hotels, and reasonably close to Chicago, has easy access to Interstate 94, is large enough to accommodate a convention center, and is publicly held, owned by the town's Board of Park Commissioners, eliminating the need for negotiating a public-private partnership -- all advantages.
Another plus, according to the study, is the possibility that a water bridge would be built to connect to the land to the south.
On the negative side, according to the study, there are no headquarters-quality hotels or existing development on site, it's close to wetlands, site preparation could be costly and walkability is somewhat limited.
McDermott said last summer that he believed the Highland site is the best location for a convention center.
"Hundreds of thousands of cars pass by there every day and it's 35 minutes from downtown Chicago," McDermott said.
McDermott said then that both Hammond and Highland would benefit from a convention center at the site, with additional restaurants and hotels built in the communities.
While not willing to commit to any one project at this time, Batistatos said the authority would have to endorse one site at some point.
"At some point we will need to focus on the proposal with the most fiscal viability," he said.
"We need a convention center. We need the redevelopment it would create," he added.