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Hoosier slips: Indiana's new marinas may be bringing in more than boats.

The boat-building industry has had a place in Indiana for decades in cities such as Decatur and Elkhart. But until recently, pleasure boating on Lake Michigan meant many Hoosiers had to take the interstate to Michigan or Chicago.

No longer. "We're hoping to initiate a new industry, to claim some of the shoreline for public use," says Barbara Waxman, project director for the Lake Michigan Marina Development Commission. Five communities in Northwest Indiana are home to public marinas or have them in the planning stages:

* East Chicago's $12.4 million Robert A. Pastrick Marina opened in July 1987. The commission paid for design and planning, while the city financed construction with general-obligation bonds. There are 283 slips at which to dock boats, and more than 40 acres of park land and parking.

* Construction on the Gary Marina is set to begin in the next year. The project, which could eventually cost more than $150 million, is a joint effort between the city, the National Park Service, USX Corp. and Lake County's Parks and Recreation Department.

Plans call for a 30- to 40-foot-high "greenbelt" to be constructed between the marina and a nearby steel plant. The berm will be constructed of slag, lime residue and dust, all byproducts of steel production.

The city hopes the area eventually will be home to resort hotels and casinos. Over the past several years local officials have unsuccessfully pushed lawmakers to legalize gambling for the area.

* The Hammond Marina is the country's third-largest, providing 1,113 wet slips, five launch ramps and fishing piers. It also is home to the SS Milwaukee Clipper, a 361-foot, steam-powered passenger ship built in 1905. Officials hope that someday the ship will house a maritime museum, restaurant and shops. The marina project cost $23 million. Although it was the most expensive project in the city's history, the financing package included $14 million in private funding.

* Michigan City has had public marinas since Washington Park was constructed in 1965. Sprague Marina, upstream on Trail Creek, was added a decade later. Developers have had success with private marinas, including Newport, a residential marine community. Plans are on the drawing board to expand Washington Park Marina and undertake some infrastructure improvements at Sprague Marina.

* Construction at the Portage Marina could begin early in 1993. A joint effort between the city and the Little Calumet River Basin Commission, efforts are being made to enhance the natural beauty of the area. Eventually, the project could include 200 slips.

In the past, politics sometimes have gotten in the way of progress in this corner of the state. But the marina projects have moved forward because cities have been willing to work together and with other units of state and local government, as well as private developers. "It's just bringing a lot of people together," says Arlene Colvin, Gary's chief operating officer. "Everyone might have different interests, but we all have the same goal."

The Hammond Marina was able to begin construction only after the cities of Gary and Michigan City loaned Hammond a portion of their state money for marinas. That city was ready to break ground, while the others were not.

"It's been a cooperative effort; all the cities, everybody has been helping each other along," Colvin says.

They apparently can afford to work together. Although the marinas eventually will be in competition for tourist dollars, they aren't having any trouble finding boaters to rent slips or dry storage space. Hammond and East Chicago sold out of space soon after opening.

"We hope these marinas create jobs and diversify our economy," Colvin says. "Like many communities in Northwest Indiana, we have relied on manufacturing jobs. If we can diversify, our chances of maintaining growth in our economy are a lot better."

There are some who believe the plan for marinas to become a major industry may not hold water. Leslie P. Singer, professor of economics at Indiana University's Northwest campus, cautions that marinas are "more a psychological boost than anything," he says. "They flourish when an area flourishes, but they can't turn the area around alone."

While not personally opposed to the construction of the marinas, Singer cautions they should not be seen as a cure for tough economic times. They can't replace the heavy industry the area traditionally has relied on, he warns. "They're a good idea, but only if other things are happening in the economy."

But Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott says it's clear the marina in his city has had a positive impact in just its first year. There are already discussions under way for construction of a shopping center near the facility, and the city is hoping to attract a hotel-convention center that could be linked to the marina with an aerial walkway.

"The ancillary benefits have been enormous," he says. "We tried to sell the idea of a shopping center in that area for eight years. Nothing happened. Now we've got developers from around the country trying to get in there. And the only thing that's changed is the marina went in."

The purchase of the SS Milwaukee was criticized by some as an expensive boondoggle. But McDermott says he believes the move already has proven successful. Plans are in the works to open a nightclub on the steamer, while its ballroom facilities are in high demand for small conventions.

"We've got a stack of requests for reservations 8 inches high," the mayor says.

The success of marinas in Northwest Indiana is actually the latest chapter in efforts to promote boating around the state, where lakes often are home to state-run or privately owned marinas or other mooring facilities.

Lake Monroe, located southeast of Bloomington and in the Hoosier National Forest, covers almost 11,000 acres, making it Indiana's largest lake.

"What makes it nice is Lake Monroe has an idle side and a fast side," says Kara Peterson, director of tourism and promotions at the Bloomington-Monroe County Convention and Visitor's Bureau. "There's the idle side for fishermen and the fast side for water skiers, power boaters. It's been very popular."

The Four Winds, a privately owned resort, has a marina with 200 slips. Other mooring facilities are located around the lake to handle the demand of recreational boaters.

There are four docking facilities on Brookville Lake. Located south of Richmond, near the Ohio border, the lake has become a popular summertime spot. The Fairfield Marina, for power boats, and Hanna Creek Recreation Area, for sailboats, are owned by the state. Two other state-owned facilities are leased to private operators: Kent's Harbor and Horn's Houseboats. In all, there are about 1,000 slips and other docking facilities available on the lake.

Recreational boating success hasn't been limited to the waterways. Some boat builders report increases in sales, which some people believe may be a precursor to a broader economic recovery for the nation.

"The industry was down about 20 to 40 percent, depending on who you listen to," says Jim Gallagher, national sales manager at Godfrey Marine in Elkhart. "We were up at least 20 percent in this model year. We feel we must be doing something right for the customers and dealers."

About 200 people are employed by the company, producing fishing and pontoon boats.

One of the most successful models introduced this year was the Challenger series in its Sweetwater line, Gallagher says, explaining that it was built with the entry-level boater in mind.

The 19-foot boat, equipped with a 25-horsepower engine, retails for about $5,200. It's important that any company capture a portion of the people coming into the market, he says. "We want to show them this is something they can enjoy doing. We're fortunate that we can sell fun."

Also reporting about a 20 percent increase in sales was Sailrite Kits in Columbia City. "It's too soon to tell about this year because the season is just commencing," says Connie Grant, who owns the business with her husband, Jim.

Sailrite is primarily a mail-order business that supplies boat owners with the tools and materials needed to make and repair sails, covers, awnings and other fabric items on boats. An in-house repair operation also is available.

"Our business is somewhat recession-proof," Grant says. "We save boaters money. There is definitely a demand for that."

Like many Indiana boat builders, Doug Smoker, vice president of New Paris-based Smoker Craft, has found encouragement in recent sales figures. "We've just had the most successful expo we've ever had," he says, referring to a recent 10-day boat show in Chicago that generated numerous sales leads. "That was a nice lift."

Smoker says his company, which also markets boats under the Sylvan name, has weathered the recession well by continuing to develop new products and promoting current lines heavily. With the boat-show season under way, the fruits of the strategy are apparent. "At these boat shows, you really don't hear recession talk."
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Author:Skertic, Mark
Publication:Indiana Business Magazine
Date:Mar 1, 1992
Words:1483
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