Merrillville — ‘Heart of the Region’ • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine

Merrillville — ‘Heart of the Region’

Merrillville leaders plan new facilities, developments as town continues growth trend

Aerial of Merrillville, Indiana
Figures from the Merrillville Planning and Building Department show the estimated total cost of construction in 2023 for the town exceeded $193 million. (Photo by Joey Lax-Salinas)

Merrillville’s leaders are quick to point out that the town is at the crossroads of Northwest Indiana. They recently began using the “Heart of the Region” slogan to emphasize that point.

They also note Lake County’s third largest municipality is growing, attracting residential and commercial developments.

The U.S. Census Bureau reported its population at 36,233 as of July 1, 2022. Figures from the Merrillville Planning and Building Department show the estimated total cost of construction in 2023 exceeded $193 million.

Town officials aren’t content to stop there. They continue to plan years into the future to ensure quality of life for residents, visitors and businesses.

“What early on impressed me is the quality of the department heads,” said Michael Griffin, who became interim town manager in early September. “It’s a big town, and the department responsibilities are really big.”

He also said the town is working hard to offer the highest level of services at the lowest possible cost. Voters have picked the right people with the skills and will to do that, he said.

Town Council President Rick Bella said he is partial because Merrillville is his hometown.

“I think that’s what’s kept me here my entire life is it has a great feel to it,” Bella said.

New center of town

Michael Griffin
Michael Griffin

Bella and his colleagues have been working on a new comprehensive plan for the town. Among the ideas under consideration is replacing the 40,000-square-foot town hall, which once was a Tepe’s catalog showroom.

“It’s old, and it’s starting to have some older building issues,” he said. “If we’re going to do a new town hall, it’s not going to be just a new town hall. It’s going to be an entire governmental complex.”

The town owns about 16 acres behind the town hall. The new facility would be built there, but so would a new town park.

“We probably need a centralized park,” Councilman Shawn Pettit said. “We don’t really have large parks.”

Pettit envisions not only a new town hall but also a new police station and amphitheater for 1,500 to 2,000 people.

Rick Bella
Rick Bella

Bella explained how it could work. The town hall would be built while the existing building remains in use. Once town offices are moved to their new home, the existing building would be razed.

A town square would be developed on the property, with a park in the middle, and ice cream and doughnut shops among the retail attractions around it. Residential development would be encouraged to the north.

“It all goes into our desire to have a walkable community,” Bella said.

Merrillville has a lot of traffic. It also has 188 miles of roads in its 30 square miles. The town, created in 1971, developed quickly in a time when the automobile was king. Now the town is trying to become more pedestrian-friendly.

“I see people trying to cross U.S. 30 once in a while, and I cringe. I hope they make it OK,” Bella said. “We’re starting to think about how do we make our town more walkable. Let’s park the cars.”

Shawn Pettit
Shawn Pettit

Pettit, president of the Redevelopment Commission, is key to making these plans happen. The RDC is looking at opportunities across the city.

“We’re going to need a public safety facility to service what’s known as the panhandle,” Pettit said.

Merrillville is a landlocked community, like several others in Lake County, and has an odd shape that has developed over the decades. In addition to the core of the town, which stretches west of Mississippi Street, a rectangle goes east to encapsulate Deep River, both the river itself and the county park.

The public safety facility will be important in reducing response times, Police Chief Konstantinos Nuses said.

“It takes a long time to get there,” he said. “I think that’s being somebody who cares about their town” to plan the new public safety facility.

In addition to a police substation, the structure would include a fire station and room for a street department truck. The fire station on 73rd Avenue isn’t close enough, Pettit said.

Future development

Town officials know that Merrillville is on track for development with its central location near major highways.

“Probably the biggest thing that the RDC will look at is the Whitcomb Street corridor from U.S. 30 basically down to 93rd Avenue,” Pettit said. That area is ripe for development. Robinson Engineering has been retained to do an analysis.

The town and the Gary Diocese are also discussing what to do with the roughly 200 acres the diocese owns between Broadway and Merrillville Road north of 93rd Avenue, Pettit said. That land is being farmed.

Liberty Estates, with 1,100 housing units, is also a popular topic. That area includes apartments, townhomes and light warehousing with an entrance off Whitcomb.

Liberty Estates
Liberty Estates is a large planned unit development in Merrillville. (Provided by the town of Merrillville)

The big question, of course, is what to do about the vacant land at Interstate 65 and U.S. 30 where the Star Plaza and Star Theatre once stood.

That site put Merrillville on the map when it comes to entertainment in Northwest Indiana. Town officials hope it can do so again.

“People are nostalgic about it. It was a great destination,” Griffin said. “It comes up all the time.”

Griffin, like others, recalls many concerts and other events he attended there.

In 2018, White Lodging proposed a $356 million complex called The Farms at Crossroad Commons that would have included four hotels, a meeting and event center, an office building and a variety of restaurants at that site.

“The White property should be built as it was designed by Bruce (White) prior to his departure from this life,” Pettit said. That would have created 900 permanent jobs, he noted.

The holdup was the Lake County Council, which balked at the $75 million incentive White Lodging sought.

“Other people could not see the forest for the trees, and it’s a shame,” Pettit said. “He was willing to create construction jobs, and we couldn’t get past this word ‘tax.’”

The new food and beverage tax recently implemented would have been used to promote tourism by helping fund the new convention center. A study is being done this year on a possible site for a new Lake County convention center, with the White property considered a frontrunner. It was the top spot in a previous study on that topic.

“How could you argue with the location, say, where Star Plaza used to be?” Bella asked.

A second top location was the nearby Century Mall site south of U.S. 30.

Tax incentives

In February, the town began charging its new 1% food and beverage tax.

“It wasn’t done lightly,” Griffin said. “It was thoughtfully considered.”

Only about 35 units of government in Indiana have been given the Indiana General Assembly’s blessing to levy the tax, Griffin said.

In Nashville, Indiana, the tax is being used to create additional parking and public restroom facilities for the tourists who support the small Brown County town’s economy.

Griffin, with 30-plus years in public finance, has helped businesses in Merrillville navigate the arcane rules of when to charge the new tax. For example, fountain drinks are subject to the tax but not soft drinks in cans.

When the new tax was adopted, three people spoke against it. Town officials take that as a sign that the new tax is well accepted. It’s considered to be primarily funded by tourists.

Revenue will be seasonal, unlike property tax revenue, so the amount generated each month will fluctuate.

“If the economy goes a certain way, we’ve got to be prepared for that,” Griffin said.

Bella expects the food and beverage tax to generate $1.8 million each year for the town. “It’s probably a low estimate,” Bella said. That much money will allow the town to improve the quality of life for residents without costing them anything, he said.

Among the uses could be pedestrian bridges over Broadway, Bella said, as well as helping parks and recreation, economic development and tourism.

Money from the town’s tax increment financing districts is also vital.

“There’s a huge benefit to doing that to attract a business,” Bella said.

“I kind of drive economic development” through those TIF funds, said Bob Swintz, partner with LWG CPAs and Advisers in Indianapolis. That money primarily funds infrastructure work.

The TIF districts and town incentives have been effective in bringing development to the town. Those allocation areas, as they’re called, are long-term investments. For 10 to 12 years, the town saw slow growth. Now, Swintz said, “it’s just exploding.”

The Silos at Sanders Farm project includes a 1 million-square-foot spec building. The 196-acre Silos at Sanders Farm development on Mississippi Street received a $1.41 million Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative (READI) grant.

“That was farmland, generating next to nothing in terms of taxes and revenue for the town of Merrillville,” Bella said.

Domino’s Pizza began using a $50.3 million building at AmeriPlex at the Crossroads business park to make and distribute pizza dough.

AmeriPlex at the Crossroads
AmeriPlex at the Crossroads on 98th Avenue in Merrillville includes 386 acres for development. Amazon built a 141,360-square-foot fulfillment center on 35 of those acres. It opened in 2021. (Photo by Rick Bella)

Red Bull Distribution Co. planned to occupy space in a 39,483-square-foot building at that business park, with room for other tenants.

AmeriPlex also attracted a Big Lots distribution center.

Ground was broken last May for a new facility at the Mississippi Crossings development.

And the list goes on.

Last year, the town issued 30 permits for new single-family homes, 24 for duplex to four-plex homes, nine for multi-family homes, 426 for commercial buildings and more than 1,300 for miscellaneous improvements. Those building permits generated more than $1.7 million for the town.

“I think we have a reputation of being very business-friendly,” Bella said. “We don’t charge an arm and a leg for permits.”

The Plan Commission, Board of Zoning Appeals and Town Council are also easy to work with, he said.

“Some cities and towns figure they’re going to grow anyway, so they don’t want to do it. We’re going to take a more aggressive approach,” Bella said.

Town officials are competitive with neighboring communities, perhaps making Merrillville a more attractive site, but each project’s merits are weighed before making a decision, Bella said.

“If it doesn’t make sense financially, we’re not going to do it,” he said.

Curb appeal

Merrillville officials embrace the heavy influx of new development but also recognize the need for redevelopment.

Broadway Plaza is one of the sites being considered for improvements. The strip mall includes not only a variety of storefronts but also a vast sea of concrete in the parking lot.

“It’s the remnants of a shopping center,” Griffin said. “The challenge to them is they don’t have very much curb appeal.”

The mall’s owner has been successful in attracting tenants.

“We know there’s cool things going there and conscientious business owners,” he said. “There are some interesting businesses going in there. There’s a lot of entrepreneurship.”

The town is considering a new streetscape for Broadway Plaza and the adjacent City Mall that would break up that sea of concrete, adding islands with trees and other landscaping to make it more attractive. In addition, sidewalks could be added with separation from the roadway to enhance pedestrian safety.

“Cities and towns get older, buildings get dilapidated, and you have to work on that to keep the community strong and moving forward,” Bella said.

That’s just one of the long-term changes Bella wants to make.

Extending 93rd Street to Colorado Street would create an entirely new corridor. “That would be a huge, huge boon to the community,” he said.

At 96th and Whitcomb, where the government center lets out, Bella envisions a roundabout.

“We’re going to have to soften the corners and curbs once the Liberty Farms development gets going,” he said. “When you put in 1,000 housing units, that’s going to be a lot of traffic.”

For the youth

Bella is also concerned about creating more activities for teens.

“Teens and the desires to do what they want changes so often,” he said. “If you’re not into parks at all, then no, we’re not offering a whole lot.”

The Dean and Barbara White Community Center, a 95,000-square foot facility on Broadway, opened three years ago to promote health and improved quality of life for residents of all ages. It includes a gymnasium with three basketball courts, six volleyball courts, an elevated jogging track, pickleball court, two-story rock-climbing wall, fitness center and more.

The new town center created behind the existing town hall would help keep teens from being bored, creating a place to hang out and maybe see a concert. The amphitheater could appeal to every age group, depending on who is booked to supply the entertainment. Even garage bands could be invited to perform there for an hour or so, Bella suggested.

“I feel that there’s been a paradigm shift in our culture,” Police Chief Nuses said, with fewer people going to nightclubs and bars.

Growth mentality

Geographically, Merrillville is Lake County’s second-largest municipality, second only to Gary, its neighbor to the north.

Traffic counts are high, with over 1 million people driving through town in a 24-hour period. “We have a lot of people who come through here,” Nuses said.

“Public safety issues in town tend to depend on who’s coming through town, not long-term residents.

The crime rate, according to, is significantly lower than the national average.

“We’re a lot safer than what some people believe,” he said. “Merrillville is a lot nicer than some of the areas we’re compared to.”

Merrillville’s shops and other businesses generate a high number of jobs. “Our daytime numbers exceed some of these other communities,” he said.

Not that Merrillville’s population is small. With an official Census count of about 35,000 residents in 12,000 individual households, Merrillville is the county’s third-largest town. “I’m willing to bet we’re closer to 40,000, 42,000,” Nuses said.

Success stories

Rockland Page
Rockland Page

Rockland Page, owner and founder of Merrillville-based ROCKaBLOCK, is happy with the town.

“We’ve come to get away from the hustle and bustle and even lack of public safety in some of those communities,” he said.

“It wouldn’t be Merrillville if it wasn’t for the people, and there wouldn’t be a ROCKaBLOCK if it wasn’t for the people to support it.”

Page started ROCKaBLOCK in 2017.

“It was just a hobby at first, just because I was so bored with my day job, doing creative services for a Chicago engineering firm,” Page said.

He designed and made T-shirts in his basement. He sold them online via his website and social media, then began selling at various events and pop-up shops.

Then the pandemic hit, and his job’s hours were cut. But his side gig took off.

“I started getting random orders from all over the country” as people wanted to support Black-owned businesses when Black Lives Matter gained traction because of police incidents across the country, Page said. One day an ABC 7 producer set up an interview.

“That’s the story of how ROCKaBLOCK was really put on the map,” he said.

The company now operates out of a storefront in Merrillville. The town is just the right distance between Indianapolis and Merrillville, he said.

“There’s actually room for growth. If you start here, you can grow here,” he said. “I think we’re the crossroads, a link in the chain between Indiana and Illinois.”

DJ Moore
D] Moore is CEO of Siltworm Inc

“You really want pride in the community. You really want to see things grow,” Page said.

Siltworm is another Merrillville-based business. It sells erosion control products for builders. As its name implies, Siltworm is different from the black plastic fences used on some construction sites, instead lying across the ground to keep silt from running off the site.

It works like a coffee filter, explained Siltworm CEO DJ Moore. The netting is filled with recycled filter media inside, trapping sediment inside the long tube. “Anything that’s on the site stays on the site,” he said.

The company began in Griffith but moved to Merrillville in 2019. “Honestly, we just had a good opportunity with a building,” meeting the company’s needs, Moore said.

Daniel Vicari, executive director of Gary/Chicago International Airport, also sees Merrillville as important to the Region’s future.

After studying the idea for a few years, his agency bought the Griffith/Merrillville airport, knowing the importance of general aviation there.

Dan Vicari
Dan Vicari

With his agency’s ownership, the airport is no longer privately owned and can qualify for Federal Aviation Administration grants for improvements, Vicari said.

The acquisition is good for Gary’s airport, which can steer general aviation flights to the Griffith/Merrillville airport, freeing up space for additional commercial cargo and passenger flights in Gary, Vicari said.

Merrillville’s primary asset, from Moore’s viewpoint, is its location.

“You’ve got I-65 running right through there,” he said. “We ship all over the country. The Region is a great place to be.”

Read more stories from the current issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.


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