Developers are looking at building an e-commerce distribution center that would potentially employ up to 3,000 workers somewhere in Lake County, possibly by the newly expanded Gary/Chicago International Airport.
Karen Lauerman, president and CEO of Lake County IN Economic Alliance, said the massive project would be between 1 million and 3 million square feet of space and is far enough along where the developer is in talks with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency about the remediation of a potential site. The e-commerce business park potentially could employ thousands of workers — as many as a steel mill or an auto factory — if it reaches its full potential.
"These would be good-paying logistics jobs," she said at the Lake County Advancement Committee's luncheon at Teibel's Family Restaurant in Schererville. "They would pay well."
Don Koliboski, vice president of economic development with the Lake County IN Economic Alliance, took developers from the East Coast on a tour of the Gary airport and surrounding sites this week.
"We may see the investment (in a longer runway and other improvements) pay off," he said. "E-commerce facilities for product distribution is a trend, and it's not just Amazon."
The Lake County IN Economic Alliance is currently pursuing four major e-commerce warehouse projects, among the 79 different economic development projects it has in the pipeline. That's about 18 or 19 more projects than last year, Lauerman said.
The economic development agency also chases 200 leads a year and fields hundreds of inquiries a day from prospective companies curious about locating in Lake County.
"We've got more projects in the pipeline and probably a good 20 percent increase in site visits, touring people around Lake County," Lauerman said. "The 20 of those, if they all came through, would mean about $700 million in investment and, conservatively, between 3,500 and 5,000 jobs."
She describes her agency as "the Switzerland of economic development" in that it works equally for every community and unincorporated area in Lake County, sometimes offering alternate sites from other cities or towns to keep Lake County in the running for new factories or warehouses.
The Lake County IN Economic Alliance also is now working on retail and filling vacant big-box sites since the so-called retailpocalypse has pocked commercial corridors with vacancies. Many of the more suburban Lake County communities are mainly retail-oriented.
"There are ways to repurpose retail centers and big-box stores for other purposes," she said. "A company we're working with wants to turn a vacated grocery store into light production. We have to be creative about these spaces in Lake County."
Where appropriate, vacant grocery stores could easily be turned into light industrial since they're large, have ample parking for employees and have docking bays for semitrucks, Lauerman said.
"We're working to deliver on our mission to drive jobs and investment through business attraction and retention," she said.