Things are looking up for Michigan City
BY ADAM PARKHOUSE – Michigan City News Dispatch – Jun 27, 2014
Michigan City Mayor Ron Meer is on a mission to make meaningful changes to Michigan City during his term.
Under Meer’s leadership, the city has made strides in a number of areas, but he knows there’s plenty more work to be done. In the conversation that follows, Meer discusses the Lake Michigan Gateway Implementation Strategy, redevelopment throughout the city and the future of Michigan City.
N-D: Let’s start with the Lake Michigan Gateway Implementation Strategy. That meeting a couple months ago was really great and there were a lot of nice ideas in there. How do ideas get transformed into reality?
Meer: The whole Lake Michigan Gateway Implementation Strategy, actually I came up with that, rather than talking about a plan this was taking some of the top four or five common themes of past studies and let’s act on them. They needed to be refined and when you do that, you can get assistance from the state. This was to refine it down and I did everything I could to avoid saying we’re going to be doing some kind of a study. This is putting data into an action plan. Of course, we also brought in (Planning Director) Craig Phillips.
N-D: Talk about how important Craig has been in this process.
Meer: Quite obviously, people felt things were pretty stagnant for a long time in the Planning Department. With his experience and accomplishments in other cities, and most noticeably in Valparaiso – people talk about Valparaiso and how well it’s doing as far as quality of life issues, which then draws in investors and businessmen who want to be in the community – he’s been instrumental and very energetic. His energy and the know-how he has and what he’s accomplished in other communities are his biggest attributes. I’d say we brought in a franchise quarterback.
N-D: One of the things that came out of the Lake Michigan Gateway Implementation Strategy meeting was the need for a year-round form of entertainment. What might that look like in MC?
Meer: They’re taking a look at, particularly on the north end, I think we have some parks that are under- utilized. The whole sledding and tobogganing thing has been brought up and zip lining, and then of course there are conversations – and we’ve had some investors come in and talk – about some indoor theme water park facility. Now, that’s not the city building and running this thing. We’d like it to come from the private sector. That’s all part of what’s being discussed. It goes back to job creation, too. We hear a lot about how the jobs that are being created are retail jobs, but there’s management jobs there, too.
N-D: Right now, in between the Uptown Arts District and the lake is a glut of buildings, including the library, The News-Dispatch, the police department and City Hall. What will this area look like in 10 years?
Meer: You’re going to see two-way traffic on Washington and Pine streets. You won’t see The News-Dispatch building there anymore or the police station there anymore. The library will still be there. It’s a nice architectural building and draws people into downtown. You’ll see some nice roads designed around there, you’ll see pedestrian walkways. What goes in here, that’s gonna be a lot on (Redevelopment Commission). The Memorial Hospital site has strong interest in it right now.
N-D: It seems that Michigan City is establishing two identities right now from a business standpoint. On the north end, locally-owned restaurants and shops are popping up, and on the south end, big box chains are becoming the norm. Can both types survive in the long-term?
Meer: I think so because many folks said they’d like downtown to be like it was in the 40s, 50s and 60s, and maybe it’ll never be like that again, but it can be thriving. Of course, the ArtSpace project will be a giant boost and anchor. The area north of 11th St. has recovered a lot and I think in 10 years you won’t see a vacant storefront there, they’ll all be occupied. The big box chains, you can have that, too, but the uptown area will be unique and where you’ll see festivals and the Taste of Michigan City and all that will escalte. Also, the public art. People want more of that.
N-D: Lately we’ve seen some good news coming out of local businesses with various expansions and companies opting to remain in Michigan City. Of course, there have been some that have gone the either way. How do you assess the business climate right now in Michigan City?
Meer: Definitely retail is going well. We’ve had some interest in East Gate Plaza of a different grocery chain coming in. That’s been a concern because that community utilized that store. Also, bringing in Clarence Hulse with (Michigan City Economic Development Corporation) has been great and he’s just getting going. A place like Richards (Building Supply) stayed here and stayed here because they could see things changing in Michigan City. We have a couple businesses looking at the old Anco building, too. It’s very competitive with every community. There are tax abatements and some even give property away.
N-D: Overall, there seems to be a lot of positive momentum in the community in a number of different areas. Where do we have the most room for improvement?
Meer: In job creation itself. Then workforce development and both of those things Clarence and (MCEDC) and myself and Jeff Deuitch with Human Rights, you’ll see partnerships with Ivy Tech and A.K. Smith where people say, you train these 10 people for jobs specific to that company.
N-D: Michigan City Area Schools are going through a tough time financially. The city and school budgets aren’t connected, of course, but what lessons – if any – can be learned from MCAS’ situation?
Meer: Michigan City hasn’t necessarily had to learn those lessons because we’ve had the riverboat money to fall back on. This year, as we conversate on the budget, so that we don’t cut services we provide to the community, we have since 1999 relied on a portion of the riverboat money to offset shortfalls in the tax levy. I’ll ask that we continue to do that. Quite honestly, we have it. Some communities just don’t provide those services anymore. I don’t believe we have to experience it. Will riverboat dollars always be here? I don’t think anybody knows that, but tax dollars aren’t always there. We’ve see that with this whole tax crisis in La Porte County. One thing we’ve seen with the schools is you need to know where you’re at with your fiscal body. I’m slow and methodical, even with this police station. First we decided on a site, then the issue was getting the (former Eastport school property), then it was demolition, then it’s the design and engineering phase. There would have been a lot of people who said, “Let’s just get it done.” Now the next biggest hurdle is financing it.
N-D: In your estimation, what kind of progress has Michigan City made in your term as Mayor?
Meer: We’ve really got a lot of projects accomplished. Michigan Blvd. Phase 2 is moving forward and we’ve probably done $5-8 million in storm and sewer work, these are things needing to be done for a long time. Getting the ArtSpace, we were on the third go-around there. We really worked downstate and when the Governor was here, he told is if we ever needed anything … I waited a while to pull that trump card, but I said this was really important to Michigan City. I use sports analogies all the time, and a lot of people moved this ball down to the 3-yard-line and I got to grind it in. A lot of people like Tim Bietry, Richard Murphy, Mayor (Chuck) Oberlie and others were involved in this.
N-D: As for the remainder of your time in office, however long that winds up being, what are your plans for the future?
Meer: I want to continue to see progress we’ve got moving forward with the Redevelopment Commission. Public health and safety, to me, are right there with schools in terms of importance to the community. People have to feel safe, so the police department is extremely important to me, making sure they’re maintained at a high level. It’s important that kids in the neighborhoods are safe. Outsiders look at that if they’re going to move corporate offices here, they want to feel safe in the community.