City leaders focus on needs of growing population
With about 40,000 residents, Portage is the third-largest city in Northwest Indiana. About 1,500 people have moved here since 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Housing prices average about $200,000, a sweet spot for new residents.
The city also is home to some big business names, including BNutty, Fronius USA, MonoSol, and of course, U.S. Steel. They provide plenty of jobs.
“There’s so many cool industries … here,” said Lorelei Weimer, president and CEO of Indiana Dunes Tourism.
And there’s more to come.
Late last year, Amazon announced plans to build an $87 million data center, and World’s Finest Chocolate reached an agreement with the city to buy 60 acres on the city’s north side for an operation there, with an eye toward tourism.
The city also offers many opportunities to play. The Indiana Dunes National Park, which was redesignated in 2019, brings tourism dollars and natural wonders close to home.
“People like Portage,” said Andy Maletta, executive director of the Portage Economic Development Corp. “It’s a perfect place to locate.”
The city’s north side receives a lot of attention when it comes to economic development. The 385-acre AmeriPlex at the Port business and light industrial park north of Interstate 94 is filling up fast, according to Maletta.
“Portage is a great spot. You’ve got the highways, the whole northern corridor with the Port of Indiana,” he said.
Amazon obviously agrees. “The equipment they’re putting in the data center, it’s going to be here for a long time,” Maletta said.
Amazon has a history of announcing plans to open a warehouse in a community and then pulling back from that plan. In Valparaiso, Amazon had purchased a spec building that was vacant for several years and had begun remodeling it to meet the company’s needs. Then Amazon changed its mind and stopped work on it.
The data center, though, is different, Maletta said.
It will create only 10 jobs, but all of them will pay in the six figures, he said. “We’re pretty excited about that.”
The $87 million investment is just for starters.
“They think they might, within the year, be expanding some more,” Maletta said.
The City Council approved two tax abatements for Amazon — a 10-year abatement for the building and a five-year abatement for the equipment. Councilman Ferdinand Alvarez, D-At-large, voted against it, saying the giant company could easily afford to pay its full amount for taxes.
Alvarez agreed, however, with the rest of the council in granting a similar abatement for World’s Finest Chocolate to set up shop in Portage.
The company plans to build a plant that will offer a retail component and factory tours, much like Journeyman Distillery in Valparaiso. World’s Finest Chocolate also seemed excited about access to Burns Waterway Harbor for a tourism component, Mayor Austin Bonta said.
“My top priority, economically, is to get Burns Drive extended, get a bridge to go over the waterway and get over Ind. 249,” said Bonta said about the need to open more land for development.
World’s Finest Chocolate’s decision to buy 60 acres of city-owned land is a success story for the Redevelopment Commission. It has been marketing 120 acres of prime property for development after reacquiring the land from a previous developer that went bankrupt and failed to build a promised sports complex there.
Former Mayor Sue Lynch said the city wanted to find the right buyer for acreage there this time.
She has been known to eat a few pieces of World’s Finest Chocolate from time to time. If the company’s name sounds familiar, it should. Parents might have seen their kids selling the company’s candy bars for fundraisers, Lynch said. The company’s website said that, since 1949, the company has helped customers raise over $4.6 billion by selling its candy.
Lynch also enjoys Queen Anne brand chocolate-covered cherries, which have been made in Chicago by World’s Finest Chocolate since 2006.
Before the deal went public, city leaders were bursting to announce the news. Prior to the announcement, Maletta said the city had received a letter of interest from “an incredible company” for another $100 million investment, creating 300 jobs.
“It’s going to be pretty exciting,” he said. “That will be a game-changer project for Portage when completed.”
Another project on the horizon is the creation of a makerspace at an open-air pavilion owned by the city near Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk.
Former Councilman Scott Williams, who has been leading the charge for the makerspace project, said the underutilized pavilion gets too much wind and not enough sun, so it isn’t a comfortable space for its intended use.
The makerspace would have a commercial kitchen, wood shop, welding equipment and other tools for use by craftspeople and hobbyists who want a space to create products.
The Redevelopment Commission is considering the plan and was eager last year to pursue it.
Reasons to stay
The city already has many companies that make distinctive products.
BNutty, which makes artisan peanut butter in a variety of flavors, is based in Portage. The business that initially launched as a fundraising vehicle for youth soccer has turned into a global enterprise. The U.S. Small Business Administration named BNutty the in April 2023.
Another company manufactures solar inverters and anticipates a “solar boom” in the U.S.
Austria-based Fronius USA recently expanded its American headquarters in Portage. It has plans to double its workforce by the end of the year.
“The business-friendly environment in Portage, Indiana, combined with the large pool of highly skilled workers in Northwest Indiana is why we are investing in this area,” said Elisabeth Strauss, CEO of Fronius International, in a news release.
MonoSol makes the plastic coating for products like Tide pods, which make it easy to use just the right amount of detergent in washing machines and dishwashers.
The city’s top employer is U.S. Steel Corp., which operates the former National Steel plant just across Burns Waterway from Portage Lakefront Park and Riverwalk. Nippon Steel has announced plans to acquire U.S. Steel.
“When you think about it, Portage is an international city,” Bonta said. “You’ve got ships from all over the world coming.”
That includes the public marina as well as the Port of Indiana at Burns Harbor, which despite its name is in Portage. People from far and wide travel on the expressways that run through the city, too.
The lakefront park is one of Northwest Indiana’s biggest success stories. A former slag dumping ground was cleaned up and turned into the most-visited unit of Indiana Dunes National Park.
Getting there isn’t easy, with visitors routed through the edge of U.S. Steel’s plant, but there’s parking near the pavilion open all year, and the beach is easily accessible.
West Beach, another unit of Indiana Dunes National Park, is another popular spot for visitors. It’s on the border of Portage and Gary.
At both West Beach and Lakefront Park, steel mills are easily visible while visitors enjoy nature.
“I think that’s a really cool perspective,” Weimer said.
Where tiny Ogden Dunes connects with Portage on U.S. 12 is a South Shore Line station offering passenger rail service to Chicago, South Bend and points in between.
Portage’s transit development district in the area has been described as a tax increment financing district on steroids, offering strong incentives for development.
Weimer, as well as city officials, is excited about that district.
“I think they have an opportunity to do more,” she said, including hotel and restaurant opportunities as well as housing and retail. It could be a walkable area, allowing easy access to Lake Michigan, she said.
Portage is working to extend trail service to the train station. The city has several trails that are popular with residents and visitors.
Weimer is bullish on trails.
“I think it’s so important, that connectivity to our communities,” she said. “What’s exciting is Portage and Burns Harbor are connected. Chesterton and Porter (County) will connect, too.”
In December, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced Porter County will receive a $2.1 million grant to build a mile of the Marquette Greenway, which will stretch from Chicago to southwest Michigan when it’s completed. Burns Harbor will receive $5 million for a problematic 0.82-mile stretch of the same trail.
“Across the state, trails are making connections — bringing people and communities together in ways we’ve never seen before,” Holcomb said.
Visitors bring big money into Northwest Indiana, Weimer said. Just visiting the Indiana Dunes beaches generates $92 million from tourism, she said.
“Protecting those beaches is really important from an economic development standpoint,” she said.
Nowhere is that more obvious than at Portage Lakefront park, where sections of the original concrete were washed away by erosion. Since then, the National Park Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the city partnered to bring more sand from dredging to the beach and to add heavy stone to protect it and the pavilion from erosion.
Weimer sits on the Portage Economic Development Corp. board.
“There’s so much opportunity there, being connected to the lake and having the port and all,” she said.
Tourism and industry can easily coexist.
“Visitors also like to learn. If we could do tours of the steel mills, it would probably be the second-largest attraction,” she said.
Tours of the chocolate plant will be popular, too, Weimer predicted.
“We don’t want them to just do the Dunes experience. We want them to come into the community,” she said.
Bonta and Maletta are excited about possibilities along U.S. 20. The city is planning to dust off the master plan for that part of the city.
“We’ve got a lot of land that we think can be made development-ready,” Bonta said.
The mayor is also focused on getting residents’ input into a new comprehensive plan for the entire city. The last one was drafted 15 years ago, Bonta said, and they should be done every five years.
As the Region grows south and east, Portage is becoming the middle of Northwest Indiana, Bonta said.
Newcomers continue to flock here, as do home builders. New subdivisions keep coming into the city, and there is plenty of room to the south and east for annexation.
In the southwest corner of Portage Township lies South Haven, reportedly the state’s largest unincorporated community.
“It’s getting close to Chesterton in population,” Bonta noted.
Annexation of South Haven might happen in a few decades but not now, he said.
South Haven faces a similar challenge. Residential growth in Portage is so rapid that city services and the tax base need to work harder to keep up with the residents’ needs.
Lynch helped lead the charge for updating the city’s wastewater treatment plant, including replacing four 44-year-old clarifiers and adding a solar array. Construction is set to begin this year.
Plant Superintendent Tracie Marshall said the solar project will cut the plant’s utility bills by 30%, and there’s room for more solar energy production in the future. Marshall wants to make sure there is room left to expand the plant when it might be needed sometime in the future, she said.
“Everything we do needs to be informed by the infrastructure we have and where we want to go,” Bonta said.
Dan Komenda is superintendent of field forces, which handles wastewater infrastructure leading up to the plant. The city has been working to upgrade the infrastructure in recent years, but there’s a long way to go, he said.
Maletta, who also serves as president of the Portage Township School Board, said the board is aware that it’s soon going to be time to discuss construction of a new school.
The newest building was built in 1979. “You can walk into our buildings, and you wouldn’t know how old they are,” he said.
Without raising taxes, the school district has been able to keep upgrading the schools’ HVAC systems and other major systems. “We’ve been able to do that with just good financial planning,” Maletta said.
As with most school districts, enrollment is down. “People just aren’t having kids like they used to,” Maletta noted.
At the elementary level, simply shifting students between schools can handle expected needs for the foreseeable future, he said.
However, the board has been discussing what to do about Willowcreek Middle School, which was once Portage High School. “It’s coming to a point where something has to be done,” he said.
Willowcreek sits at the northwest corner of Central Avenue and Willowcreek Road. That downtown location could be a prime property for development if the district builds a middle school elsewhere and sells the existing site. “That’s all on the table right now,” Maletta said.
“We’re in the very early stages of those conversations right now,” he said.
The district is also in conversation with employers about workforce needs.
“I’ve got over 2,000 kids sitting in the high school. What do you want them to learn? What do you need?” he asked.
Portage Economic Development Corp. works with school officials to identify students who probably aren’t going to college and show them places where they could look for jobs. “There’s some incredible opportunities right here in Portage,” he said.
Graduates who go off to college likely won’t come back. Those who go straight into the workforce, however, will put down roots here, he said.
Company tours help students learn what training they would need to get hired. “Most people who live in Portage have never set foot in the Port of Indiana,” Maletta said. His organization helps sponsor tours to open doors and eyes for the students.
The schools are also a selling point for employers deciding where to set up shop, Maletta said.
“We’ve got companies that have been interested in the city for a good while, and they continue to be,” Bonta said.
That is good news for the future of Portage.
“We want you to be able to come to Portage,” Bonta said. “We want you to find success here.”
Read more stories from the current issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.