An Alternative Vision for the Calumet Region

By Woodrow Wilcox

Recently, Gary Mayor Scott King spoke to the Gary Chamber of Commerce and promoted the vision of Gary and the Calumet Region as a center of lakeshore amusement, hotels, and tourism. Some other very prominent citizens share that vision. I do not.

Much of my adult life has been spent working in the entertainment and tourism industries in California, Nevada, and Florida. I believe that I know something about the tourism industry. People don’t rent hotel rooms just because someone built a hotel. People must want to go to the destination.

Building even one hotel is a big investment. The investment must give a good return on investment or it will die financially. It is easier to gain market share in an existing vacation destination rather than create a new vacation destination. To help insure that investors get their desired return on investment, tourism industry jobs are usually low paying jobs. I don’t believe that millions of tax dollars should be spent in the hope of creating low paying tourism jobs and good returns for some investors. That is why I don’t believe that the vision of Gary or the Calumet Region as a tourist destination will work. It is just not realistic.

Think about it. Is it really reasonable to believe that enormous numbers of tourists will visit this area year round in order to support the massive investments that would need to be made to create a tourist destination? The destination must be a year round destination in order to support the construction, maintenance, and labor costs that are involved. That is why the Walt Disney Company’s two main amusement properties are in southern California and central Florida. Those locations attract tourist dollars year round.

Somehow, Mayor Scott King and others believe that after the hotels are built, millions of men will say to their wives, “Hey, honey! Let’s take the kids and your mother with us on a vacation to Gary, Indiana. I hear that it’s the murder capital of the U.S.” I don’t believe that it is realistic to imagine such conversations driving tourists to this area.

I believe that there is a more realistic alternative vision for Gary and the Calumet region. It is a vision which utilizes what we have right now. It is a vision that can start to create good paying jobs quickly. It is a vision that can attract new businesses soon. Here is my alternative vision.

The Calumet region could become the center of the Midwest for Earth friendly energy production and research. About a century ago, steel mills located on the south end of Lake Michigan so that coal could come here by rail and iron ore could come here by ship for steel production. Some of the land and buildings that were used to make steel could now be used for energy production and research. Technology has improved to allow coal generated electricity to be free of many pollutants. Research can be conducted here to learn how to use industrial waste, water, sunlight, and wind to generate electricity.

The steel mills would gain a new source of revenue with energy production. China and India cannot sell energy to the U.S. as they can sell steel to U.S. companies. So, this new source of revenue for the steel mills would be more stable year round. The building of plants for energy production would provide good paying jobs right away for many masons, electricians, ironworkers, carpenters, laborers, and others.

Energy could be sold to energy consumers in Indiana, Illinois and southwest Michigan. At the industrial properties along Lake Michigan, more energy could be produced with less interference with residential communities than from anywhere else in the Midwest. Experiments in wave or current generated hydro power could be done. Solar energy panels could be researched, built, and tested. The breezes along Lake Michigan could be used for wind turbine research and development. That research could benefit every community along the shores of the Great Lakes in both the U.S. and Canada.

The prospect of research and development of the use of industrial waste energy, hydro energy, solar energy, and wind energy would attract scientific firms and employees to the Calumet Region. Purdue University engineering students could get internships and jobs at such firms. Students from other local colleges and technical schools would benefit, also.

The value of the industrial properties and the surrounding research properties would increase so that the property tax burden on homeowners, renters, and small businesses could be reduced. Relatively low cost energy would interest many businesses in locating branches here.

Transforming the Calumet Region into an energy production and research center would be easier than creating a vacation destination. I believe that the long-term financial benefits from becoming an energy production and research center far outweigh the purported benefits of becoming a tourist attraction.

© 2006 Woodrow Wilcox