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City spotlight: Munster.

Called one of "five cities to watch in the '90s

"For much of its history, Munster was a bedroom community. Steel-mill workers would grab their hard hats, professionals their briefcases, and head for places like Gary, Hammond or Chicago.

But for more than a decade, the little town has been growing from a suburb into a thriving community in its own right. There are thousands who are now leaving their homes in other communities and heading for Munster each morning.

"I don't know why some people are surprised," says Tom DeGuilio, the town manager. "We sell a good quality of life here."

That quality of life has attracted a population that ranks among the state's highest earners. The median income of the community's wage earners is more than $41,000, ranking Munster first among the state's cities and towns with more than 2,500 people.

A bedroom community since the days after World War II, the town's successes are being noticed by those outside Lake County. Crain's Chicago Business magazine has called Munster one of "Five Cities to Watch in the '90s."

The town of about 20,000 has been aggressively expanding its tax base with a combination of small- and medium-sized businesses. There are some in the community who believe businesses have looked to Munster because the town lacks one of Northwest Indiana's great spectator sports: politics. When compared with the gamesmanship that takes place in some cities, particularly in neighboring Chicago, politics in Munster can be downright boring.

The town is governed by an elected four-member board that appoints a town manager. Following a decade-long tradition, those members are usually Republicans. But Democrats are well represented on area boards and committees in both the public and private sectors.

"I guess it's not a real political community," says DeGuilio, town manager for the past eight years. "There's really only politics about six months out of every four years."

Despite a healthy mix of small business, Munster lacks what many smaller towns have--a downtown. There are business districts, but the old-fashioned town square atmosphere present in many cities is missing in Munster.

Instead, the community's focal point seems to be its schools, particularly Munster High, which has gained a reputation as one of the strongest academically in the state.

About 98 percent of the class graduates from high school and 85 percent will go on to college or a professional school in an average year. Scholastic Aptitude Test exam scores continually rank above the state and national averages.

In the industrial corner of the state, this town's average worker is a business professional. Many lawyers and particularly those in the medical professions have chosen Munster as their home. In the latter case, one reason may be that Community Hospital is the town's largest employer, with more than 400 affiliated doctors and more than 1,800 employees.

Pride in the community is not limited to the schools. Many throughout Lake County point to The Center for Visual and Performing Arts as a sign that the Calumet Region can shed its reputation for smokestacks and steel mills.

The center gives area residents another choice when considering the attractions of Chicago or the Star Plaza Theatre in nearby Merrillville for entertainment. The center's tenants include the Northern Indiana Arts Association and the Northwest Indiana Symphony Society. The center has become home to intimate performances, meetings and receptions.

"The Performing Arts Center was built for all of the Region, but it sits in Munster," DeGuilio points out. "It's been one of the key pieces in our puzzle."

That puzzle has been taking shape for almost a century. Munster was settled in the mid-1800s, and, true to Northwest Indiana's blue-collar reputation, the first building was a tavern. A wave of Dutch immigrants settled the town. A small postal substation housed in a corner of Jacob Munster's general store gave the community its name.

"I think some companies are surprised when they come to Munster and want something to be done a certain way for them," says David Bochnowski, president and chief executive officer of Peoples Bank & Trust Co. "They usually find out that it's going to be done Munster's way."

His company moved from Hammond to Munster seven years ago as part of its strategic plan. "We chose Munster for a reason," he says. "It's been the type of community that fits our strategic plan."

The town's strict zoning laws and long-range planning haven't deterred many companies from making the town their home. With the Borman Expressway straddling Munster, and downtown Chicago 25 minutes away (as long as it's not rush hour), the town has excellent transportation links.

U.S. Reduction Co., a secondary aluminum refining operation that began in East Chicago, moved its corporate offices to Munster to an office complex housed in the former Simmons Co. mattress factory that closed shop in the late 1970s. The building, now called the Lake Business Center, offers more than 100,000 square feet of office space, railroad service and docking space for trucks.

The building is also home to businesses that include Ultra Slim-Fast, Nutri System, Canfield's and a Ford Motor Co. parts division. The huge warehouse built for holding box springs makes it a perfect distribution center.

The small town has a fair number of large companies. General Electric Co. opened a 450,000-square-foot warehouse in Munster in the late 1980s that serves as a distribution point for much of the Midwest. Munster Steel Co. employs about 70 people fabricating structural steel.

Carpetland U.S.A. Inc., the retail carpeting store chain, is headquartered in Munster in the same building that holds a massive showroom.

Strategic location is also one of the reasons the Pepsi-Cola General Bottlers plant has thrived for a quarter century at its Munster location. The facility is one of the largest bottling operations in the world. Chances are any Pepsi being poured from a can or bottle in any community from Peoria to South Bend had its start in Munster.

"We've been here for 25 years because it's in an area that's centrally located and has worked real well for us," says Bill Gustashaw, plant manager. "We enjoy a real positive relationship with the neighborhood."

Pepsi is one of the town's largest employers. In the future, job growth will predominantly be in the office complexes the town is aggressively pursuing. "We're looking for the larger, white-collar payroll jobs because we have a lot to offer them. We have a good, solid infrastructure, good water and sewer service, taxes that are not substantial and we offer tax abatements selectively," town manager DeGuilio says.

"We haven't had any of the big, jackpot businesses lately, but we don't go looking for them," he concludes. "We want businesses that can help Munster."
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Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Regional Report Northwest; Indiana
Author:Skertic, Mark
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Jan 1, 1993
Previous Article:Economic development in northwest Indiana: Chicagoland companies are looking across the border.
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