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Hobart’s Patriot Park tops list of potential convention center locations

The top five sites among 14 evaluated for consideration for a potential Lake County convention and event center are in Hobart, Gary, Merrillville and Hammond.

Representatives from Johnson Consulting presented the results of its updated market study Thursday before the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. The study is the first step in the process mandated by statute which enables the Lake County Commissioners to consider proposals for a convention and event center if they choose to move forward.

Ryan Johnson, practice leader and principal in charge of convention centers, and John Fleming, senior project analyst with Johnson Controls, said the firm looked at the case studies from the original evaluation and how the industry has changed since the pandemic in updating the analysis. The study looked at originally proposed sites along with new sites submitted during a January call for potential locations.

Patriot Park, located at 7800 Mississippi St. in Hobart, was a new name on the list and ended up as the top pick. Formerly known as Hobart Silverstone, Fleming said infrastructure already exists. There is little development now but plans for comprehensive development at the site are in place. There is also only one landowner.

The Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana site at 5800 W. 29th Ave., in Gary ranked second. The site is missing the surrounding restaurant and retail development needed to support a convention center. While a large portion of the land is owned either by the city of Gary or Hard Rock, there are also additional landowners, he said. There also may be concern about wetlands.

“We did a full comprehensive analysis of each of the 14,” Fleming said.

The former Century Mall site in Merrillville ranked third while the former Radisson Hotel Star Plaza site at 800 E. 81st Ave., was fourth. Kennedy Avenue at Interstate, 3102 177th St., in Hammond was the fifth site.

Fleming said each site had its pros and cons. Location, property ownership and acquisition costs, access to transportation, walkability, and existing businesses in place — such as restaurants, retail stores and hotels — were some of the criteria used in evaluating the sites.

The study found the proposed convention and event center would have a direct spending impact of $43.2 million during construction and an annual impact of facility operations of $63.8 million. Construction is expected to generate about $3.7 million in local and state taxes while operations are expected to generate about $3.5 million in state sales, county innkeepers and local income taxes, according to the presentation.

Some things have not changed since the original feasibility study. There is a gap in the convention and event space market outside of Tinley Park, Illinois since the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza closed in 2016. A convention center would create an opportunity to tap local demand as well as attract Chicagoland corporate business.

How event space is used has changed in the wake of the pandemic. The ability for more break-out space within a larger facility is in demand. Amateur sporting event space now is reaching saturation compared to 2018, Fleming said.

The 14 sites examined in the study, including the top five, are not inclusive of where a proposed convention and event center could locate, Fleming said. The project will be driven by private development, and the county will be open to considering any location proposed.

In a statement, Lake County Commissioners Michael Repay, Jerry Tippy and Kyle Allen thanked the RDA for their work updating the feasibility study. Commissioners said Thursday that they had not yet had a chance to review the study.

“This document will be used by those entities interested in submitting a proposal for a convention facility along with all other requirements for building projects in Lake County,” Repay said.

The Lake County Commissioners will utilize a professional team and appropriate departments to analyze submittals to identify the most qualified entity that can demonstrate financial stability, sustainability and operations.

“We have been given an unprecedented opportunity to access funding from the state and we intend to use those funds along with allowable county funds to leverage the private sector for a project that is sustainable,” Tippy said.

“Updating this report is just one part of the process,” Allen said. “Our team will be preparing a request for proposal for the development construction and operations in the coming weeks.”

On Wednesday, Gov. Eric Holcomb signed into law Senate Enrolled Act 37 changed the May 31 deadline for commissioners to select a proposal. A provision in SEA 37 instead allows commissioners to begin accepting proposals Dec. 1. The legislation was listed as an emergency due to the deadline change and was effective upon signing.

The next step in the process will involve the commissioners working with their development consultant to hire a company that is capable of reviewing any potential proposal.

cnapoleon@chicagotribune.com