La PORTE — A clearly defined “economic development corridor” would ease downtown traffic congestion, provide industries with better access and spark fresh investment along the route itself, planners said this week during an afternoon-long workshop with stakeholders.
No one could say what route the corridor eventually would take — planning consultants are expected to develop options for the community, including one to do nothing. But local officials said they want to be prepared for an anticipated growth spurt in and around La Porte in the coming years.
“It’s always good to take the opportunity, when you can, to look at where we are now, where we’re going and the best way to get there,” said Bert Cook, executive director of the Greater La Porte Economic Development Corp., on Thursday.
Elected representatives, key public safety officials, planners and other community leaders met in the La Porte County Complex, both together and separately, with professionals from Lochmueller Group based in South Bend.
Participants said a key element in this project, one that sets it apart from some past efforts, is the involvement of a broad coalition of community leaders.
“This is really a rare thing, when you think about it,” Cook said. “You have city and county governments working together in a spirit of partnership and cooperation to find the best way to grow the local economy, ensure public safety and improve the quality of life for everyone.”
The La Porte County’s Board of Commissioners hired the consulting firm last year using federal funds allocated by the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Committee, and much of the initial work will be based on a 2015 feasibility study commissioned by the Greater La Porte Chamber of Commerce. Many of those at the session Thursday were city hall officials, but County Commissioner Rich Mrozinski and state Rep. Jim Pressel also participated.
Susan Al-Abbas, project principal with Lochmueller, said the community advisory committee was formed to provide her team with insights as it begins to consider various “alignments” for the corridor.
“We’re working through the process with the committee,” Al-Abbas said. “They identified what they like about various routes and what they didn’t like, and they gave us some additional options.”
Planners are looking at trends and developments, such as construction of the intermediate school at Kesling. They're also considering potentially transformative projects — notably hopes for a major industrial development at Kingsbury Industrial Park. Existing wetlands, historic farms, residential areas and retail development are also being considered.
"We’re still in the process of identifying what the community wants to do,” Al-Abbas said. “It’s a long process.”
Even if no major developments occur at Kingsbury, traffic data show the downtown bottleneck will get worse over the next two decades. Motorists can expect backups on the U.S. 35 overpass from Lincoln Way to Weller Avenue in the years ahead if no action is taken, the planners said.
Any number of routes for the corridor are possible. One aim, planners said, is to tie Kingsbury Industrial Park south of the city to highways north of the city without having to go through downtown.
Lochmueller will analyze various options before bringing those ideas back to the community for public comment and review, Al-Abbas said.
No timeline has been set, and funding options must also be considered, but county plan director Mitch Bishop said he hopes to have a proposal in place by early 2019.
Plans for a “bypass” have been on the drawing board for 40 years, and pitched by various administrations in different forms, but attention more recently has focused on the east side.
City Council member Tim Stabosz, who is also a member of the economic development corridor advisory committee, said rerouting heavy truck traffic away from the downtown was critical to having a vibrant city center.
“I don’t think we have to be afraid of it,” Stabosz said.
“Some people think you’re going to take traffic out of downtown, and downtown is going to die, but that’s not really what we’re building here,” he said. “The future of downtown is sidewalk cafes and historic neighborhoods and a quality of life that attracts people to the community so we can grow.”
He urged residents to look at the bigger picture and embrace the vision being drafted by city and county leaders not only to improve the downtown, but to create jobs and encourage investment across the board.
“It’s exciting,” Stabosz said. “This could have a huge impact on this community.”