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Candy, Casinos Big Draws in South Shore

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Candy, Casinos Big Draws in South Shore

Tim Wilk, owner of the Gray Goose Inn in Chesterton, IN. (WBEZ/Michael Puente)

The Indiana Dunes are dusted in snow these days. And there aren’t many visitors to what in the warm months is one of Northwest Indiana’s most popular tourist destinations. But that doesn’t mean the area is without visitors. In fact tourism is one of Northwest Indiana’s growth industries. Some see it as an economic spark for the region in a down economy.

Those aren’t rain drops you hear, but big droplets of chocolate falling from a 30 foot high sort of water fall at the Albanese Candy Factory and Store in Merrillville, Indiana.

It’s like a toy store of candy: Brightly colored Gummy Bears; all sorts of chocolate covered peanuts; toffee; and Gum Drops.

FOX: Oh my Gosh. I love the jelly beans, chocolate of course. And, it’s just fun to fill up stockings, Christmas stockings.

Kathy Fox lives in nearby Highland.

Regular visits from people like her are helping to make the Albanese Candy Company something of a tourist attraction for Northwest Indiana, an area known for its dunes and lakeshore.

Tourism, as an industry, is often overlooked in Northwest Indiana.

But like steel mills or other heavy industry, tourism is big business here, employing thousands including hotels.

BATISTATOS: The state of the hospitality industry all along the South Shore is relatively healthy.

Speros Batistatos runs the tourism bureau in Lake County, Indiana, which is trying to rebrand the area as the South Shore.

South Shore, of course, is the longtime name for the commuter train that runs from South Bend to downtown Chicago. You might know it from the ever-popular series of South Shore posters, depicting different scenes of life in this region.

It seems only natural that tourism boosters see the moniker as something positive for the entire area.

BATISTATOS: The hospitality industry in Lake, Porter and LaPorte, the South Shore region, we employ more than 40,000 people, it’s a $1.4 billion contributor and it rivals Indianapolis.

Tourism in these parts, however, differs from what you’ll find in downtown Chicago or Indy because Northwest Indiana, I mean the South Shore, is so spread out. There’s no one downtown, no central hub, although the Indiana Dunes are a major magnet in spring and summer.

But in these colder months, options such as amateur sports, indoor concerts, exhibits, plays, hunting and fishing and cross-country skiing keep people occupied while generating dollars.

And people point to the stretch of U.S. 30 near Interstate 65 in Merrillville as the area’s main retail corridor.

BATISTATOS: We’re pretty confident in the dollars that are being churned and they are clearly offsetting some of the downturns we’re seeing in steel. We don’t want to see U.S. Steel lay anyone off but in these times where they have to, we???re here to make sure that the bottom isn’t as low as it was maybe 30 years ago.

Of course, what the South Shore has now that it didn’t 30 years ago is casinos.

The five casino boats that line Lake Michigan’s shoreline help to draw in thousands every day to the South Shore.

Even in a down economy, millions of dollars are being generated at the boats.

Here at Horseshoe Casino in Hammond, the casino brought in more than $42 million in October and attracted a half-million customers.

Though a casino official says those revenue numbers can’t hide that the slumping economy is hurting the bottom line.

But all these bells and whistles aren’t for everyone.

PUENTE: Hi, Good Morning.
STEELE: Good Morning.

Slot machines aren’t what attracted Kathy Steele and her husband to nearby Chesterton, Indiana.

It was something else.

STEELE: Romance. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful.

Residents of Denver, Colorado, the Steeles recently spent a week at the eight-room Gray Goose Inn, a bed and breakfast in Chesterton.

STEELE: And when you have this huge window and look out at the lake and see the swans and the geese and all the wonderful birds, you just can’t beat it.

B&Bs do a brisk business in Porter and LaPorte counties but Gray Goose Inn owner Tim Wilk says business took a dive last month.

WILK: It’s been dramatic because ordinarily my weekends are sold out. Always. This weekend here so far I just have three rooms on Friday and three on Saturday. And, that’s very, very unusual.

Tourism officials are using this slow season to plan for next summer.

In July, Northwest Indiana plans to host the National Softball Association World Series, which is expected to bring in $2-million to the area.

Tourism officials are watching the overall economy and hoping events like the softball World Series or conventions don’t cancel or scale back their plans.

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