Northwest Indiana is quickly becoming notorious for the revitalization of its historic downtowns, and the city-center of La Porte, Indiana, is no exception.
In the last four years, the blocks surrounding La Porte’s century-old courthouse on Lincoln Highway have experienced dramatic physical improvements, and has become a rapidly growing community; one that has cut down its vacancies from 70 to 20 percent.
Yet, as unprecedented as La Porte’s revitalization may seem, the phenomenon hasn’t exactly come as a surprise to Mayor Mark Krentz. In fact, Mayor Krentz views the progress as a timely payoff, one that stems from both a refined focus from the city, as well as the elbow grease that the citizens have put into re-energizing their hometown.
“I think it’s all connected, because when you start to actually address the quality of your town or city, you’ve got to look at it from an economic development standpoint, but you also have to look at the aesthetics,” said Mayor Krentz. “I think paying attention to every side is important, and our community focusing on that balance is what is promoting the city in a new and vibrant way.”
The aesthetic improvements to the historic downtown are ongoing, but the physical restoration of the buildings surrounding the Lincoln strip have already brought a new sense of life to the city. Fresh coats of paint and refurbished facades seem to be intertwined with a surge of new businesses that have put down their roots in the downtown area.
“For the downtown renovations, there were funds that were made available to the shop owners to help them with their facade improvements, and at the end of the day it’s the movers and shakers in the community that are making this whole thing possible,” said Mayor Krentz. “Once that revival starts, it’s somewhat contagious, and it attracts more families, more businesses.”
One of those new businesses that has recently laid down its roots in La Porte is Four Seasons Asian Fusion. The restaurant only opened in March, but has already found itself prospering on the corner of Lincoln and Monroe.
“Our restaurant serves a different type of food in La Porte, and although our menu is focused on Asian fusion, we’ve had so many different types of people come in through the doors,” said owner Kevin Gao, who moved to La Porte from Mishawaka to open the restaurant. “Right now the community has served us so well, and we just really appreciate all of the support.”
At the same time, just as the city continues to see the influx of entrepreneurs who have recognized the vast potential La Porte now offers, businesses and organizations that have been established in the area for several years have also taken notice to the city’s revival. One such entity is the Pax Center, which is headed by longtime La Porte resident Nate Loucks.
“Besides the immense exterior improvements and the longevity of new businesses that come into the area, the city just seems to have a better and more purposeful plan,” said Loucks, who is also the pastor at State Street Community Church. “It’s a long-term, sustainable kind of growth, instead of just slapping band-aids over problem.”
Loucks’ Pax Center is a non-profit organization that offers a variety of programs for struggling community members, such as weekly community meals and a food pantry.
“It’s a little ironic, because the worse the economy gets, the busier we get, since we provide food to those that are hungry,” said Loucks. “That said, our numbers now compared to four or five years ago are actually down quite bit, probably even by eighteen percent.”
That eighteen percent statistic certainly isn’t to say that the Pax Center is losing its ability to serve and feed people, but it rather shows evidence of a community that is seeing its unemployment numbers fall while prosperity climbs. Moreover, although Loucks admits that he’s seen his city go through some rough decades, he is confident that the community is finally on the right side of the bell curve.
“I’ve lived in and around La Porte for my whole life, and I’m truly excited about the city’s future for the first time in many years,” said Loucks. “We have the potential to be something great, something unique.”
Loucks is far from alone in his optimism for his hometown, and is joined in his positive outlook by other “movers and shakers” like Gao, as well as folks like Bert Cook, who stands as the Executive Director of the Greater La Porte Economic Development Corporation.
“It would be hard to drive downtown and not notice significant differences from one or two or three years ago, and the momentum that we have is so important for a city undergoing this sort of revival,” Cook said.
Cook sits on a number of boards in La Porte, including the Chamber of Commerce, the Urban Enterprise Association, and the Northwest Indiana Forum’s Economic Development Committee. His experiences in all aspects of local economic development have given him some insight into the revitalization of the city, and he believes all signs point to a continued upward trend.
“A lot of the projects up to this point have been subsidized by either the government or not for profits, and we absolutely credit our citizens with taking advantage of that and rebuilding the city,” Cook said.
“In the next coming years, though, I think we are going to see the private sector really start to emerge and embrace this new growth, where we’re going to see more projects occur outside of those subsidies, and I’m very excited to see what that brings to this historic downtown and the surrounding community.”