Portage looks to economic, cultural benefits from the Dunes becoming Indiana's first national park

NWI Times

The City of Portage is basking in the spotlight with the recent federal designation of the 15,000-acre Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, which stretches 15 miles along Lake Michigan, as a national park.

The provision made the Indiana Dunes the 61st national park in the U.S. and the first in Indiana.

From the city’s point of view, the designation offers a great deal of opportunity when it comes to economic growth, culture and tourism.

Each year 6 million people visit Porter County. In 2018 alone, 3.6 million of them went to the Dunes, Indiana’s top tourist attraction, said Indiana Dunes Tourism Promotions Director Dustin Ritchea.

“If you combine visitor attendance at the state and national parks, the Indiana Dunes is expected to be the seventh most visited national park,” Ritchea explained. That would put it right behind Yosemite in California, according to the National Park Service. National Geographic puts the Indiana Dunes’ visits as almost the same as Mount Rushmore’s.

Tourism officials believe the national park designation will draw more visitors to Northwest Indiana to see prairies, woodlands, wetlands, savannas, bogs, and the sand dunes, which reach heights of 192 feet.

Marketing efforts are underway, including a series of Indiana Dunes Tourism videos on YouTube and increased international pitches to Germany and Japan.

Ritchea said the group plans to attract pet owners, because the Dunes are pet-friendly, and Chicagoans who can bring their bikes on the South Shore Line to the Indiana Dunes National Park.

“We’re delivering an outdoor adventure located just 45 minutes southeast of Chicago,” Ritchea said. “It’s no longer a bucket list destination. Now, it’s a repeat destination."

“As Indiana’s first national park, the Indiana Dunes National Park will be a significant boon to Indiana’s economic development, specifically tourism, which already pumps $476 million annually into our economy,” said Lorelei Weimer, executive director of Indiana Dunes Tourism.

Hotels, restaurants, casinos and other businesses across Northwest Indiana are likely to benefit from an increase in tourism.

“The Region has a new feather in its cap and an opportunity to use the Indiana Dunes to increase our economic development,” said Weimer. “When businesses look to move to an area, they seek great schools, great towns and great infrastructure with a competitive advantage, but what is often ignored is that businesses are also looking for something unique.” That would be Indiana Dunes.

Weimer said tourism is one of Porter County’s fastest-growing industries, responsible for 1,000 related businesses. It also has created more than 5,500 jobs — one-third of which are higher-wage/professional occupations — which pump $476 million into the economy. In 2018, Indiana Dunes Tourism generated $50.5 million in economic impact, a $1 to $38 return on investment from taxes.

According to Portage Parks and Recreation Superintendent Jenny Orsburn,  Portage manages the River Walk in partnership with the National Park Service. Portage tends the facility and the National Park Service takes care of natural resources. In addition, Indiana Dunes National Park also will remain separate from Indiana Dunes State Park, which still is state-owned and under the auspices of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.

“This is Portage’s access to Lake Michigan, and we are actively involved and committed to the partnership,” Orsburn noted. “The national park designation elevates the city, the Region and the State of Indiana.”

While Orsburn said the Parks and Recreation Department plans for an increase in tourism as visitors to the lake and beach look to the community for restaurants and businesses, there will be attempts to procure federal funding for restoration efforts.

“Due to erosion, the public access sidewalk to the lake is washed out,” said Orsburn. “Hopefully, the national park designation will call more attention to restoration and protection needs.”

The quest for a national park designation has a long history, with the first director of the National Park Service, Stephen Mather, making the recommendation in 1916. Mather felt that the Dunes’ unique biodiversity and geological features made it a prime candidate.

World War I put a damper on that effort until local conservation work led to establishing the areas as the Indiana Dunes State Park in 1925 and as the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore in 1966.

In 2017, U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Gary, won unanimous approval from the U.S. House to designate the national lakeshore as a national park, but the effort hit a snag in the Senate in 2018. National Park Service officials in Washington, D.C., had opposed the renaming, because they wanted to reserve the “national park” designation for large land or water areas that feature a variety of resources.

Determined, Visclosky approached the newly elected Congress in early 2019 to advance his national park proposal. He succeeded by getting it inserted in “must pass” spending legislation that President Donald Trump had to sign or risk a second partial shutdown of the federal government.

“I am heartened that because of the support of our U.S. Senators, the entire Indiana Congressional delegation, and numerous Northwest Indiana organizations, we have successfully titled the first National Park in our state,” said Visclosky. “This action provides our shoreline with the recognition it deserves, and I hope further builds momentum to improve open and public access to all of our region’s environmental wonders."

“This designation certifies what we Hoosiers have known all along — Indiana Dunes is not just a state treasure, but a national treasure as well,” U.S. Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., added.

Orsburn attended the name changing ceremony in Indianapolis in February.

“Both the state House and Senate read a proclamation with the name change,” said Orsburn. “This was Indiana state recognizing that we have a national park here in the Region and its importance to our quality of life.”