Whiting Lakefront Park is great place to catch some rays on a summer day. (Michelle L. Quinn/Post-Tribune)
Whiting Lakefront Park is great place to catch some rays on a summer day. (Michelle L. Quinn/Post-Tribune)
A recently signed law that creates liquor licenses for use in a lakefront-zone developments is a new tool for communities on Lake Michigan’s shoreline to tap into the economic potential the region’s most prized natural resource offers.

Gary Mayor Jerome Prince said now that the House Bill 1090 has been signed into law, the city will work to collaborate with organizations such as the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission with its expertise and resources to make sure the development that may occur in that region is beneficiation to not only Gary but the rest of Northwest Indiana.

Prince said in seeking the bill he wants to attract the types of development including retail and restaurants that would beautify and revitalize the area including Miller Beach in the northeastern part of Gary.

“I think it would complement what we have,” Prince said.

Ty Warner, executive director of NIRPC, said the agency did not weigh on the legislation while it was making its way through the statehouse. He said the legislation could help with the type of development along the lakefront that would make better use of the resource.

“We don’t take advantage of the lakefront well enough,” Warner said. Unlike other areas with a lakefront resources, it is difficult to find hotels and restaurants along the Lake Michigan shore in Lake County.

Warner said any development needs to be carefully planned so as to not ruin the lakefront itself.

“You don’t want to kill the goose that lays the golden egg by development,” Warner said. The right development will highlight the resource. He said the legislation could potentially help realize the full Marquette Park vision, where the intent was to open up the lakefront for recreational instead of industrial use.

Completion of the Marquette Greenway, part of a regional bike trail linking Chicago to New Buffalo, Michigan, creates access and demand. He cited the Atlanta Beltway, a premier bike trail in that city. The trail is so popular, some restaurants have relocated just to be closer.

‘If you have a good enough regional asset, it creates opportunities for people to get in there,” Warner said.

First-term Whiting Mayor Steve Spebar credits the administration under former Mayor Joseph Stahura with the revitalization of the lakefront under the original legislation that tied lakefront development and its liquor licenses to communities that have an oil refinery within their borders, and the subsequent tax increment financing district created there.

Initially the city’s lakefront included a gravel parking lot, large stones and rip rap — stones and materials intentionally placed to help protect shoreline structures against scour and water, wave or ice erosion. Today, it is an entirely different lakefront with Whihala Beach and the Whiting Lakefront Park, Spebar said.

When the possibility for liquor licenses enters the picture, it can serve to encourage the type of restaurant development that attracts tourism and the dollars it brings. The TIF helped pool funds from different taxpayers to the investment in the area.

“The liquor license portion gives diversity in how you plan a development,” Spebar said. “It’s great for tourism. It’s great for residents to be able to enjoy the park on a much more frequent basis than before.”

Beautifying the lakefront included adding a gazebo, pavilion and formal garden, destinations now booked for weddings and events. The park, dedicated in 2015, features a bike trail, tennis courts, sand volleyball courts, a baseball diamond and a fishing pier among other amenities. Spebar said. Parking fees from Whihala Beach, which the city purchased from the Lake County, helps with city revenue.

“We have a little stretch of paradise on the lakeshore,” Spebar said.
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