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New look at an old lake

 Just as Indiana's Lake Michigan shoreline was the trump card for luring industry and employment here 100 years ago, it once again can be the ace-in-the-hole for this region's high-stakes hope for renewal.

But will local decision-makers place their chips on this new look at the lake? They should, some warn, because it's a "once in a century" deal. Today, the Northwest Indiana Quality of Life Council will explore this issue. Featured speaker U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind., will talk via satellite. Since as long ago as 1985, Visclosky has encouraged lakeshore reclamation starting with his Marquette Plan, even while trying to preserve well-paying steel jobs, the region's traditional mainstay. The Marquette Plan made provisions for lake reclamation as well as more public use of the lake and its shore. "While (Visclosky) in no way wants to see the steel industry along the lake shrink, he also recognizes that not all of the lakeshore currently used by industry is definitely going to remain industrial," said Visclosky's press secretary Cliston Brown. In other words, Visclosky doesn't want to replace one highly exclusive landlord with another. He wants the public to feel at home along the lakefront, Brown said. Visclosky said lakeshore revitalization through reclamation is a "once in a 100 years" proposition, and the time for action is now.

Since the late 1800s, local stakeholders believed industrialization was the best, if not only, use of Indiana's 45 miles of precious lakefront. Half of those miles since have been harvested by heavy industry, from Whiting to Michigan City. But now with local steel on the rocks and other industries suffering, it's time for a shoreline face-lift to promote economic growth and bring new people to this area, proponents of shoreline diversity say. "To be competitive these days, businesses have to offer more than a salary and benefits package. They need to attract potential workers to a place they want to live and raise a family," said Cameron Davis, director of the Lake Michigan Federation.

"If ever there was a time for citizens to speak up about a lakefront that's forever open, clear and free for the public in Northwest Indiana, it's now," he said. Davis said this region could take a lesson from the city of Chicago's people-friendly lakefront planning. "The lesson is that when you have a lakefront that is forever open to the public, it benefits the quality of life and economic health of the entire city," he said. "When the lakefront is developed for only a few, the economic benefits and quality of life don't accrue nearly as far."

Still the ultimate drawing card

"The reasons this area became an industrial colossus are the same reasons for its renewal," said Mark Reshkin, a local environmental expert who is moderating today's meeting. "We sit at the hub of the nation's transportation network -- ship, rail, air and road -- the headwaters of the Great Lakes." Reshkin and other local players are convinced Lake Michigan -- which boasts the nation's largest supply of freshwater -- can be the ultimate drawing card for 21st century growth here. "This is not some fuzzy environmental issue," local environmental activist Lee Botts insisted. "This is a movement that is already in action. Shoreline reclamation is critical to this region's economic future."

Even Gov. Frank O'Bannon has jumped on the bandwagon by proclaiming Sept. 14-21 Lake Michigan Coast Week, calling for a "celebration of the lake's natural and cultural resources." This is quite a change in attitude for Indianapolis, which in the past only cared about how much money the lakefront could generate for state coffers. "Maybe Indianapolis is finally going to realize that this state is not, as I read in a brochure there, just an inland state," Botts said.

O'Bannon's move, though, was prompted by a federal nudge. Last month, Indiana's membership finally was approved in the lucrative Lake Michigan Coastal Management Program after a decade-long process and two failed attempts since the 1970s. Illinois now is the lone holdout of 35 eligible states for this fund-friendly program. The Indiana approval will crank open a new financial faucet for revitalization programs and sustainable development projects in the region. By next year, about $1 million will trickle in, with more money following every 18 months, according to Laurie Rounds, coordinator of the Lake Michigan Coastal Program for the Department of Natural Resources. "All of this money will go toward projects in Northwest Indiana, nowhere else in the state," she said.

And that's because of the region's 22,000-square-mile ace-in-the-hole. The downside is that we have missed out on an estimated $600,000 annually because of the delay, according to Jennifer Gadzala, environmental planner for the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission. "Many people have waited in the wings for years to see this approval," she said.

Change needed when chips are down Now it's up to local officials, lawmakers and municipalities to offer input on where best to spend that federal money. And new uses of the shoreline will come slowly, Reshkin said, simply because there are still many hoops to jump through. Dale Engquist, superintendent of Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, said he's all for reclaiming abandoned industry property for greener use. But he's also a realist. "I certainly haven't heard anyone talking about how they'd like to see steel mills close so we could convert the shoreline to something else," he said. Botts, an environmental activist, said the movement's beginnings already can be seen in cities like Portage, which once welcomed steelmakers without a thought to public access. "Gaining public access is now one of (Mayor) Doug Olson's highest priorities," she said.

To help trigger this change, several groups are working to get local, state and federal decision-makers to the same table. One of these groups is the recently formed Lake Michigan Shoreline Development Commission, which has secured a $7 million shoreline trust fund, raised through dockside gaming revenue by the five Lake Michigan-based riverboats. Several local players are on this commission, including local steel mills. Rumors have been swirling that Bethlehem Steel Corp. may be selling some of its lakefront property, which could trigger a domino effect that leads to better public access. The Burns Harbor plant is set on 1,700 acres and is approximately 3.5 miles long, though the shoreline only spans about 2 miles. But spokesman Clarence Ehlers said the mill is not selling any lakefront property. "Property we are marketing is all south of U.S. 12 near Interstate 94," he said.

As part of the Grand Cal Dredging Project, U.S. Steel Corp. is transferring a 32-acre parcel of rare dune land to the national lakeshore. Spokesman Mike Dixon said the mill also is open to future deals. "Under the right circumstances, this could eventually involve redeveloping lakefront property that we're no longer utilizing," he said. In Whiting, BP Products has been using about a mile of lakefront real estate since the late 1800s. Spokesman Tom Keilman said his company is willing to work with local communities this century, though. "We are sensitive to the needs of this movement, and we want to be a part of it," he said. The question now is, can all these players pull this movement off and still come out ahead? Botts said she's praying Visclosky's lakefront renewal promises aren't a bluff. As for Reshkin, he believes change is needed when the chips are down: "Can one afford to be a pessimist in a time of change? I don't think so." - Fri, 9/6/2002

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