There Is Something Happening In Michigan City

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There Is Something Happening In Michigan City

BY JEFF MAYESMichigan City News DispatchAug 30, 2018

MICHIGAN CITY — There’s a map in the conference room at the Economic Development Corporation Michigan City and it’s not there by accident.

It shows economic development projects for the last five years, with their total costs. The number is astounding.

“This city is on the right track,” EDCMC executive director Clarence Hulse said. “Five years ago I wouldn’t have said that. I would’ve said there was a lot of potential, but now that potential is being realized.

“There is a bright new outlook that residents and existing businesses see in Michigan City. Some are excited and some are concerned. But the times they are a changing, as Bob Dylan would say, and the best thing we can do is direct those changes so they benefit us.”

Hulse is one who is excited.

“One thing we are proud of is we started documenting all of the investment in the city in the last five years. That’s what the map shows. The total is over $1 billion, and that is not just downtown, but all over, on every side of town. I put the map up in here so everyone who comes in can see it.”

The investments range from small mom-and-pop-type stores to major industries – starting with independent retailers and the tourism industry that Hulse is so fond of – more than 30 have opened in the last 12 months.

“I remember when Popeye’s opening was the biggest thing in town, but I have always been more about the independents that showcase the various flavors of the region.

“Chains can be found anywhere in the country, but the small independents are a definite selling point if you want people to come here. When the steel mills fell, it was the small independents that kept Michigan City alive.

“Sure there are better jobs, but there will always be a place for tourism. Kids like these jobs and they don’t hurt the community. And tourists turn into investors. First they buy a home here, then they move their business here. Tourism is a gateway to investment.”

Housing is a definite need in a city where property rates are up 30 percent in five years, according to Katie Eaton, EDCMC’s economic development manager.

“The real estate market is crazy right now,” she said, “and the city has a definite lack of housing. We need more developers for housing. The market is hot and will stay hot.”

Hulse sees the business-housing mix as a kind of chicken-or-egg problem, especially downtown.

He thinks a proposed Civic Plaza will attract new businesses to the area and more visitors, but the one thing lacking is housing.

“At first we needed the businesses,” he said, “and now we’ve got the businesses and we need the people.”

The Elston Grove project, a mixed-use development of 120 upscale housing units and retail on Pine Street, will help, and Hulse would like to see more apartments in the upper floors of downtown businesses.

“We’ve seen a lot more conversions of second floors into condo units and more office tenants downtown. It’s a nice area with all the business and dining options.”

There are plenty of larger projects in the works, according to Eaton, from the Blue Chip expansion – “which will mean more conventions, which will mean more people, which will mean more money,” she said – to planned mixed-use developments on the former News-Dispatch site, and potential for the soon-to-be vacated Franciscan Health Michigan City hospital on the north side.

“We’re getting a lot of hotel inquiries on both the north and south ends,” Hulse said. “And a lot of requests from data centers that need smaller spaces, but those are good-paying jobs.”

There is the huge GAF expansion, the airport runway expansion, and the “biggest thing in 2019 might be the annexation of 500 acres for two new business parks and middle-class housing,” he said.

And at some point in the future, possibly the Marquette Mall site. Eaton said the owners have been dropping the price and the city has created a TIF district in the area, so whatever might eventually happen, the city could help offset the cost of demolition and new construction.

The South Shore Double Track project will also bring new potential for the area around the 11th Street stop. Hulse points out that about $125 million of the $300-plus million to be spent on the project will be in Michigan City, and he expects it to open that area up to new investment.

“That whole area is going to look different. The city is interested in buying the whole block for the station and a garage,” he said.

“We’re on the right track. A lot of things are coming together for Michigan City. We’ve kind of been the bastard child with a lot of negative connotations, but we have a great Fire Department and Police Department that keep the fire rating up and the crime rate down. We have the Promise Scholarships to get more people to come here.”

And it all starts with the schools, he said. “From the coding two years ago to the the air compressor academy this year to the CNC welding and construction trades program. They are training kids for the jobs the employers need.”

Hulse thinks another of the factors in the city’s turnaround in recent years – which coincidentally coincides with his arrival – is coordination between city departments and organizations.

“We are seeing a return on new partnerships,” he said, “and that is one thing I’m happy about. There used to be a lot of silos in Michigan City. Everybody was doing their own thing, and now they realize they can get more done by working together. There is a lot more information-sharing and we’re starting to see the results of that collaboration.”

“It’s a combination of strong leaders and leadership,” Eaton said. “Making things happen is about talking about how to resolve issues, not just putting it on Facebook. They needed to take charge, and the more they talked, the more they realized that they all wanted the same things.”

Hulse is not immune to some of the criticism of the way the city is growing, but says negativity often comes from a lack of taking part in the decision-making.

“When I see people who are negative about it, they are usually not involved. I tell them they need to get off their keyboards and come to meetings. Get involved. Nothing is being done behind the scenes.

“Something is happening in Michigan City. Our job is to tell people to get involved and be part of it.”