A number of positive initiatives to promote the Indiana Dunes and discussion about pertinent issues regarding the topic ensued during a “Community Coffee Talk” hosted by Third Coast Spice Cafe in Chesterton on Tuesday.
Balancing the need to preserve the dunes and open areas referred to as “greenspace” with the urge to increase tourism and economic development was a hot topic for some of the attendees.
“We need to focus on putting heads in our beds,” said Speros Batistatos, CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority - adding that the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore has “a lot of ground to catch up” compared the other national parks across the country in terms of contributions to the local economy.
“The education initiatives are great, but that’s not what pays the bills,” he said. “It’s key for the state park and national park to contribute to the economy.”
The National Park with a $100 million yearly contribution, he continued, is the area’s “largest resource.”
“But while $100 million is a great contribution, I’d like to see that be $200 million,” he said. “I’ve never attracted a resident to the community without them being a visitor first. We are their first impression.”
Shawn Kaczmarek, founder of the Save Moon Valley group in Long Beach, countered by calling for the increase and connection of open areas as a catalyst for economic impact.
“We need to look at how nature can incubate and maintain through a high tech model,” he said, often referring to the state of Colorado, which has 45 percent of its land protected as public open areas. Indiana, he said, only has 4 percent of its land protected in a similar manner. “We need to take a look at Indiana from an outside perspective and see how we can do things better.”
Paul Labovitz, superintendent of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, pointed out that while Indiana’s footprint is only at 4 percent, much more land remains open through private ownership.
“It’s alright if it is private land,” he said, pointing out that the natural areas in Northwest Indiana are “one of the most bio-diverse” in the world.
Ken Kosky, promotions director at Indiana Dunes Tourism, pointed out the Passport program offered at the IDNL, which has helped guide visitors on an adventure of discovery to nine park locations ranging from West Beach to lesser-known areas like the Great Marsh, Glenwood Dunes and Miller Woods.
“It has been a good tool to get people to visit more than one site,” Kosky said.
The park’s “Mighty Acorns” program, according to former park superintendent and current Save the Dunes board member Dale Engquist, has helped students learn about the environment in a hands-on atmosphere by creating an opportunity for them to visit three natural areas a year.
“It’s a growing program that has gotten more and more support,” Engquist said.
While Kaczmarek said it would be beneficial to see Indiana get closer to a 50 percent threshold of open public land, Batistatos did not see the connection that had on economic development, instead arguing that tearing down the fence that separates the national park and state park would be the best way to connect the greenspace that already exists.
Brandt Baughman, property manager of the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, said the fence is necessary because the DNR only allows one entry point for visitors and by removing the fence it would open up the possibility of people entering the park illegally.
“It’s also there to maintain the natural state like on the West End it helps keep the prairie,” Baughman said.
Baughman also discussed the “3 Dune challenge” which requires a person to climb Mount Jackson (elevation 176 feet), Mount Holden (184 feet), and Mount Tom (192 feet). Since marketing efforts have increased, the popularity of the challenge has increased “ten-fold.”
While some may believe the Dunes only has to do with the beach and high sands close to the water, Engquist and Kosky pointed out that the area offers recreational opportunities off the beaten path that are key to attracting visitors.
“We have one of the top spots in the Midwest for birding,” Kosky said, adding that “a lot of what you can do in the summer you can do in the winter,” such as hiking in the summer would translate to a good cross-country skiing winter activity. Looking to attract more visitors year-round, Indiana Dunes Tourism has added a page on their website dedicated specifically to winter tourism.
Engquist said recreational activities like biking are “a good marketing tool.”
David Wodrich, owner of Third Coast Spice Cafe and Lemon Tree Mediterranean Grill, made a point to support a proposed feasibility study for the “Railhead of the Dunes” project, which looks to provide transportation from the Interstate and U.S. Highway Network to the national park. One of the reasons behind a feasibility study being performed is to alleviate the traffic congestion often seen through the Porter Beach neighborhood of Porter. Linking the beach to Munson Place (a 40-acre parcel at Indiana State Road 49 and U.S. 20) and the park is the main initiative.
Jenny Orsburn, superintendent of the Portage Parks Department, took a positive approach in her comments, urging others to focus on the many positives the Dunes offer for the region.
“Portage has a unique partnership with the National Park Service,” she said. “The city has made investments in brownfield (designations) so we want to show people you can enjoy the National Park but have a view of the steel mill as well. People have really embraced that.”
Referring to herself as someone who used to think the future of the region was “bleak,” she stressed the importance of recognizing the positive aspects of what is going on in the region.
Representatives from Dunes-friendly programs and organizations also attended the discussion, informing the group on some of those initiatives.
Nancy Moldenhauer is a primary organizer of the Michigan City Green Drinks events, which attracts a wide variety of people and organizations to Shoreline Brewery in Michigan City on the third Thursday of the month to discuss “anything green related.”
“People meet others that they had no idea even existed and realize they are just as passionate as them,” she said, noting that the Dunes is a topic that is of particular interest at the meetings.
A pair of representatives from the Moraine Ridge Rehabilitation Center informed the group of their mission to take injured wildlife, rehabilitate them and release them.
Anyone interested in the Dunes is encouraged to join or volunteer for one of these organizations.