By Jeff Burton, Times of Northwest Indiana
HAMMOND | There was a time when shoppers didn't rush suburban shopping malls the day after Thanksgiving.
From the turn of the 20th century until the early 1980s, Hammond's downtown district was a retail mecca, with shoppers bustling about the sidewalks along State Street and Hohman Avenue.
Women looking for elegant gowns went to Rosalee's with its ornate decor or the Fay Ette Shop, where they were met with personal assistance in finding the perfect mother-of-the-bride dress. Men looking for a suit frequented Jack Fox and Sons and anybody looking for a pair of shoes got them from Sam Sax.
"It was quite different," Hammond historian Rich Lytle said.
At various points in the city's 125-year history, major national retailers like Sears, J.C. Penney, Kresge's and F.W. Woolworth all had downtown storefronts, but the giants of Hohman and State were local stores, E.C. Minas and Goldblatt's. The two department stores occupied more than 300,000 square feet of retail space.
Changes in shopping patterns were on the horizon.
In a 1959 study by Purdue University and a Washington, D.C. retail consulting firm, a rather ominous future was cast for downtown Hammond, stating without space for future expansion, the market would dry up.
A slow suburban exodus began in the early 1970s. One by one, retail dominos fell until 1981, when the monolithic Goldblatt's went out of business, with others quickly following suit.
While much attention is paid to that dark chapter of the downtown business district's history, it shouldn't be, Karen Maravilla, president of the Downtown Hammond Council said. Maravilla, with partner Raymundo Garcia, recently opened a new store with an eclectic mix of home interiors. She said there are plenty of bright spots downtown and more hopefully on the horizon
"Hammond has gone through peaks and valleys," Maravilla said, adding she believes the key to any city's success is creating a vibrant commercial area.
"My partner and I feel very strongly about the revitalization of downtown Hammond."
Maravilla and Garcia, whose family owns the El Taco Real restaurant, also own two more properties downtown, one being the former F.W. Woolworth building on the corner of Hohman Avenue and Fayette Street. They're planning to open a restaurant and entertainment venue at the site to help draw more attention to the area.
"There really is a lot to do," Maravilla said, pointing to the area's artistic and cultural venues.
The city hired a consulting firm to develop a comprehensive plan for the area, Maravilla said. Plans involve building a charter school on the site of the former Masonic Temple and a possible move of City Hall to the Calumet National Bank building.
"If half of the these things happen, I see it as a very vibrant, bustling downtown that has a lot of balance," she said. "If the people on board stay dedicated, anything's possible."