Great Lakes Article:
New look at an old lake
Some argue transforming region's
smokestack skyline to a more casual coast is a sure bet
BY JERRY DAVICH Northwest Indiana Times Staff Writer
Posted on September
Just as Indiana's Lake Michigan shoreline
was the trump card for luring industry and employment
here 100 years ago, it once again can be the ace-in-the-hole
for this region's high-stakes hope for renewal.
But will local decision-makers place
their chips on this new look at the lake? They should,
some warn, because it's a "once in a century" deal.
Today, the Northwest Indiana Quality
of Life Council will explore this issue. Featured speaker
U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., will talk via satellite.
Since as long ago as 1985, Visclosky
has encouraged lakeshore reclamation starting with his
Marquette Plan, even while trying to preserve well-paying
steel jobs, the region's traditional mainstay. The Marquette
Plan made provisions for lake reclamation as well as more
public use of the lake and its shore.
"While (Visclosky) in no way wants
to see the steel industry along the lake shrink, he also
recognizes that not all of the lakeshore currently used
by industry is definitely going to remain industrial,"
said Visclosky's press secretary Cliston Brown.
In other words, Visclosky doesn't want
to replace one highly exclusive landlord with another.
He wants the public to feel at home along the lakefront,
Visclosky said lakeshore revitalization
through reclamation is a "once in a 100 years" proposition,
and the time for action is now.
Since the late 1800s, local stakeholders
believed industrialization was the best, if not only,
use of Indiana's 45 miles of precious lakefront. Half
of those miles since have been harvested by heavy industry,
from Whiting to Michigan City.
But now with local steel on the rocks
and other industries suffering, it's time for a shoreline
face-lift to promote economic growth and bring new people
to this area, proponents of shoreline diversity say.
"To be competitive these days, businesses
have to offer more than a salary and benefits package.
They need to attract potential workers to a place they
want to live and raise a family," said Cameron Davis,
director of the Lake Michigan Federation.
"If ever there was a time for citizens
to speak up about a lakefront that's forever open, clear
and free for the public in Northwest Indiana, it's now,"
Davis said this region could take a
lesson from the city of Chicago's people-friendly lakefront
"The lesson is that when you have a
lakefront that is forever open to the public, it benefits
the quality of life and economic health of the entire
city," he said. "When the lakefront is developed for only
a few, the economic benefits and quality of life don't
accrue nearly as far."
Still the ultimate drawing card
"The reasons this area became an industrial
colossus are the same reasons for its renewal," said Mark
Reshkin, a local environmental expert who is moderating
"We sit at the hub of the nation's
transportation network -- ship, rail, air and road --
the headwaters of the Great Lakes."
Reshkin and other local players are
convinced Lake Michigan -- which boasts the nation's largest
supply of freshwater -- can be the ultimate drawing card
for 21st century growth here.
"This is not some fuzzy environmental
issue," local environmental activist Lee Botts insisted.
"This is a movement that is already in action. Shoreline
reclamation is critical to this region's economic future."
Even Gov. Frank O'Bannon has jumped
on the bandwagon by proclaiming Sept. 14-21 Lake Michigan
Coast Week, calling for a "celebration of the lake's natural
and cultural resources."
This is quite a change in attitude
for Indianapolis, which in the past only cared about how
much money the lakefront could generate for state coffers.
"Maybe Indianapolis is finally going
to realize that this state is not, as I read in a brochure
there, just an inland state," Botts said.
O'Bannon's move, though, was prompted
by a federal nudge.
Last month, Indiana's membership finally
was approved in the lucrative Lake Michigan Coastal Management
Program after a decade-long process and two failed attempts
since the 1970s. Illinois now is the lone holdout of 35
eligible states for this fund-friendly program.
The Indiana approval will crank open
a new financial faucet for revitalization programs and
sustainable development projects in the region. By next
year, about $1 million will trickle in, with more money
following every 18 months, according to Laurie Rounds,
coordinator of the Lake Michigan Coastal Program for the
Department of Natural Resources.
"All of this money will go toward projects
in Northwest Indiana, nowhere else in the state," she
And that's because of the region's
The downside is that we have missed
out on an estimated $600,000 annually because of the delay,
according to Jennifer Gadzala, environmental planner for
the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission.
"Many people have waited in the wings
for years to see this approval," she said.
Change needed when chips are down
Now it's up to local officials, lawmakers
and municipalities to offer input on where best to spend
that federal money. And new uses of the shoreline will
come slowly, Reshkin said, simply because there are still
many hoops to jump through.
Dale Engquist, superintendent of Indiana
Dunes National Lakeshore, said he's all for reclaiming
abandoned industry property for greener use. But he's
also a realist.
"I certainly haven't heard anyone talking
about how they'd like to see steel mills close so we could
convert the shoreline to something else," he said.
Botts, an environmental activist, said
the movement's beginnings already can be seen in cities
like Portage, which once welcomed steelmakers without
a thought to public access.
"Gaining public access is now one of
(Mayor) Doug Olson's highest priorities," she said.
To help trigger this change, several
groups are working to get local, state and federal decision-makers
to the same table. One of these groups is the recently
formed Lake Michigan Shoreline Development Commission,
which has secured a $7 million shoreline trust fund, raised
through dockside gaming revenue by the five Lake Michigan-based
riverboats. Several local players are on this commission,
including local steel mills.
Rumors have been swirling that Bethlehem
Steel Corp. may be selling some of its lakefront property,
which could trigger a domino effect that leads to better
public access. The Burns Harbor plant is set on 1,700
acres and is approximately 3.5 miles long, though the
shoreline only spans about 2 miles.
But spokesman Clarence Ehlers said
the mill is not selling any lakefront property.
"Property we are marketing is all south
of U.S. 12 near Interstate 94," he said.
As part of the Grand Cal Dredging Project,
U.S. Steel Corp. is transferring a 32-acre parcel of rare
dune land to the national lakeshore. Spokesman Mike Dixon
said the mill also is open to future deals.
"Under the right circumstances, this
could eventually involve redeveloping lakefront property
that we're no longer utilizing," he said.
In Whiting, BP Products has been using
about a mile of lakefront real estate since the late 1800s.
Spokesman Tom Keilman said his company
is willing to work with local communities this century,
"We are sensitive to the needs of this
movement, and we want to be a part of it," he said.
The question now is, can all these
players pull this movement off and still come out ahead?
Botts said she's praying Visclosky's
lakefront renewal promises aren't a bluff.
As for Reshkin, he believes change
is needed when the chips are down: "Can one afford to
be a pessimist in a time of change? I don't think so."