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HAMMOND, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) — After more than 30 years of dreaming, planning, and pursuing additional commuter rail service in Lake County, work is now advancing on the $945 million West Lake Corridor train line project. The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District says workers are actively relocating underground pipelines, overhead power lines and demolishing aging industrial buildings in the path of the future track. The eight mile-mile long extension of the South Shore Line will eventually bring commuter trains through high-growth areas Hammond, Munster and Dyer.

In an interview with Inside INdiana Business, Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District President Mike Noland said crews are currently focused on the northern part of the project in Hammond.

“The most complex portion of the West Lake project will be the north Hammond area where we [trains] will be up in the air for a good mile or so over a number of different areas,” said Noland, who explained the “flyover” track needs to cross over four other rail lines and the Little Calumet River. “That’s where people are really going to see a whole lot of activity in 2022 is those foundations, building those foundations, some of the bridge fabrication in those areas.”

Noland says part of the new line will run along remnants of the old Monon Railroad, a six-mile portion of land that was abandoned by CSX in the late 80s and early 90s.

“In 2023 is where they’ll really start to lay some of ballast, rails and ties,” said Noland.

Progress cannot come soon enough for Anne Anderson, who is the economic development director for the city of Hammond. She says the rail line’s linkage to the past is a critical part of the city’s future in the downtown area.

“A train station in a downtown urban core is going to be a fabulous coup for residential. We’ve never really had residential in our downtown before,” said Anderson, who adds the city has three downtown residential projects in the works. “Market studies are showing that people, millennials and younger and empty nesters are seeking out smaller urban cores to live in. We’re taking advantage of that, promoting our downtown.”

While Hammond city leaders envision economic and potential population gains from the new commuter service, there is a catch.

The original West Lake Corridor blueprint, approved by federal agencies, does not include a station in downtown Hammond. The NICTD project has a gateway station one mile north of downtown, where the extension will meet the existing South Shore Line, and another stop two miles south.

“We studied a number of different potential station locations during the environmental review process, including downtown Hammond. The ridership numbers didn’t play out to justify, at the time, building a station,” said Noland.

As the planning and environmental processes played out, Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott approached NICTD about adding a third location with the hope to attract new residents downtown.

“If we had done that, we would have had to reopen the environmental process and basically start from scratch,” Noland said.

Noland says when the U.S. Federal Transit Administration conducts analysis to determine if the federal government will fund projects like this, local and states agencies seeking funding are not allowed to present potential new development, only existing.

Undeterred, NICTD has agreed to allow Hammond to build the additional train station, but only once the West Lake corridor trains are running in 2025.

“We have the commitment. Everything’s in place. We’re working on the designs now. We’ll just pause until we can get there,” said Anderson.

The new route will provide service from southern-most point in Dyer to Millennium Station in downtown Chicago.

“It is absolutely transformative,” said Anderson. “It will definitely support the idea of Hammond being a suburb of Chicago.”

Anderson hopes new residential options, along with new rail service, will lure Illinois residents to Lake County, Indiana.

And it may already be working. Analysis of the most recent U.S. Census shows three Lake County communities rank among the state’s 10 fastest-growing places with St. John posting a 4.9% increase in 2021, followed by Cedar Lake with 3.9% growth and Winfield saw a 3.7% increase in population.

While those communities are not along the extension pathway, NICTD says residents will eventually benefit from having access to Chicago.

“By opening up and developing this new train line in Lake County, we really open up opportunities to get the higher paying jobs in Chicago and then come back and spend that higher dollar in northwest Indiana. It really is an opportunity for our community and for our residents,” said Noland during an interview last December on Inside INdiana Business with Gerry Dick.

Still, Noland acknowledges it has been a long, arduous journey for the transportation district and the region. An idea in the 1980s that sparked a long-term vision is now underway.

In October 2020, Governor Eric Holcomb joined local, state and federal officials to break ground on the project, which also celebrated the Full Funding Grant Agreement with the U.S. Federal Transit Administration and the NICTD.

The project is being funded by a nearly $355 million federal infrastructure grant, as well as nearly $255 million from the state and more than $335 million from local partners.

“It’s like a 15 round fight and if you can’t handle taking a mandatory eight count every now and then and getting yourself off the mat and picking yourself back up, then don’t go after a federal full funding grant agreement. Because it’s quite the process but we stuck with it and here we are today building it.”

Noland says the West Lake Corridor service will run five trains during both the morning and evening rush hours from Dyer to Chicago. During off-hours, it will offer two-car shuttles from Dyer to Hammond, where passengers can then move to a train on the main line headed to Chicago. He says it is unusual to commit to such an aggressive schedule on a new, unproven rail path, but he believes market demand will fill the trains.

Click here to learn more about the West Lake Corridor project.

HAMMOND, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) — A Carmel man has been sentenced to seven years in prison after being convicted of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit securities fraud. U.S. Attorney Clifford Johnson’s office says George McKown and a partner defrauded investors of more than $5 million.

Court documents show McKown and his partner Richard Gearhart operated Asset Preservation Specialists between 2008 and 2013. The partners recruited more than 40 people to invest their savings, pensions, death benefits and IRAs and promised a return of 6% to 8% on their investments.

McKown and Gearhart then took their clients money to fund their personal business projects, as well as projects of their associates. The partners would provide clients with fraudulent statements and 1099s saying they were making a consistent profit on their investments.

Johnson’s office says many of the victims learned they had lost their savings when Gearhart filed for bankruptcy in 2013.

In addition to the prison sentence, McKown was ordered to pay more than $5.2 million in restitution to the victims.

Gearhart pled guilty to a charge of conspiracy to commit securities fraud in December 2019. He was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to pay more than $5 million in restitution.

HAMMOND, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) — The oft-used phrase in real estate circles is “location, location, location,” and that hackneyed remark is ringing true for economic development officials in Hammond. Last week, the redevelopment commission approved three major projects, totaling more than $160 million in investment. Hammond Economic Development Director Anne Anderson says the state’s pro-business environment is paying off for the Lake County city that sits on the Indiana-Illinois border.

“We were trying to entice Illinois companies over, but to be honest they’re just calling our phones now,” said Anne Anderson, director of economic development. “Many of them are looking to relocate out of Illinois for a variety of reasons. And Hammond being positioned right on the border of Illinois, we’re often the first city that these companies call.”

One of those projects includes a Chicago-area based meat processing company that announced plans to invest $35 million to construct a new facility in Hammond.

“They’re building on an under underutilized former industrial site that sat vacant,” said Anderson.

Anderson says Meats by Linz has been looking for the right location in Hammond for ten years. Persistence has apparently paid off as the company says it will move its operations from Calumet City on Chicago’s southside to Indiana and will eventually employ 300 workers.

“We definitely don’t want to create any ill will because we want to be considered part of the Chicagoland footprint, but still keep our identity as Northwest Indiana, welcoming residents and businesses with our business-friendly atmosphere,” said Anderson.

The other two projects do not include a relocation to the city, however they do represent an investment into the community.

Finland-based Huhtamaki North America says it will invest $100 million to expand its facility in Hammond. The packaging manufacturer says the 250,000-square-foot addition will result in about 100 new jobs when its operational in 2023.

“Huhtamaki is a very established Hammond business that’s been there for decades,” Anderson explained. “We were up against another state for that expansion. And we worked months and months and months to get it located in Hammond.”

The other project involved the vacant Bank Calumet building, an iconic landmark in downtown Hammond. The city and the Hammond Redevelopment Commission last week approved an agreement with NWI Hohman LLC for the project.

The city says the developer will invest $24 million to develop 100 market rate apartments and 10,000-square-feet of ground floor commercial space.

“It’s exciting because that’s one of the few residential projects that we have in downtown Hammond that’s coming up. And that’s all because of two things, a downtown master plan that we had created in 2019,” said Anderson.

While the city developed a master plan for its downtown, what it could not plan for was the global pandemic. Anderson says companies that had made inquiries about placing or expanding their businesses in Hammond, put those plans on hold because of COVID. But she says some companies are now looking to implement those plans. But certain challenges persist.

“They want to start right away because they already are feeling the delays with supplies and materials, but also the workforce,” said Anderson. “Everyone started on their big projects again. There’s kind of a slight shortage in workforce because there’s so many projects starting right now.”

Despite the recent successes, Anderson says economic development officials continue to grapple with “preconceived ideas” that Hammond is only an older industrial city. But, Anderson says she is already feeling a change in tides and is “confident the progress Mayor Tom McDermott and the economic development team is making is changing attitudes.”

HAMMOND, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) — The Hammond Redevelopment Commission has approved a development agreement for a new mixed-use project. Mayor Tom McDermott’s office says the $25 million project will bring more than 200 market rate apartments as well as commercial and retail space to the city’s downtown.

Hammond-based AGT Real Estate is developing the project, which will be located at the corner of Rimbach Street and Hohman Avenue.

“Our planning team worked closely with ATG to get this exciting development in our downtown,” McDermott said in written remarks. “This investment into our downtown is aligned with the City’s Downtown Master Plan from Jeff Speck and will bring hundreds of people into downtown and add to the thriving core we are developing.”

The developer expects to break ground this fall with the first apartments ready for occupancy by the summer of 2023.

The city is providing a 10-year tax abatement and a land acquisition loan for the project.

HAMMOND, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) – Ivy Tech Community College and Purdue University Northwest are launching a dual admissions program. The schools say students who enroll in the program at Ivy Tech and complete their associate’s degree will have a guaranteed transition to a PNW bachelor’s degree.

The partners say the program allows to students to follow one curriculum plan to earn both degrees. Students can benefit from access to Purdue Northwest advisors, facilities, student activities and resources throughout their full four years of college.

“We are excited to offer this dual admissions opportunity to students who start their degree pursuits at Ivy Tech,” said Elizabeth Babcock Depew, interim executive associate vice chancellor of enrollment management at Purdue Northwest. “This program builds upon our longstanding partnership with Ivy Tech to offer structured transfer pathways and help well-prepared students complete their four-year undergraduate degree.”

The schools say students who are currently enrolled at Ivy Tech and those who enroll as first-year students can apply for the dual admissions option.

The program is set to begin this spring. You can connect to more information about the dual admission program by clicking here.

HAMMOND (Inside INdiana Business) – A Gary man has been sentenced to more than three years in prison after pleading guilty to filing hundreds of fraudulent tax returns. U.S. Attorney Clifford Johnson’s office says Dorian Hall has also been ordered to pay more than $1 million in restitution to the Internal Revenue Service.

According to court documents, Hall operated a tax return preparation business from 2014-2016 where he prepared tax returns for clients. Johnson’s office says Hall fabricated income numbers to maximize the Earned Income Tax Credit and provided false information to obtain a refundable education credit.

As a result, Hall’s clients received more on their tax returns than they were entitled. Additionally, Hall charged a $1,000 fee for preparing each return.

Court documents say Hall filed over 300 fraudulent tax returns, including his own, and received hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees for the returns he filed. He also did not declare that income to the IRS.

Johnson’s office says Hall, who had previously pled guilty to tax charges in 2015, cost taxpayers more than $1 million.

A U.S. District Court judge has sentenced Hall to 39 months in prison, plus one year of supervised release, in addition to the restitution order.

HAMMOND, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) — A Massachusetts-based uniform supply and servicing company has completed an expansion in Hammond that is more than three years in the making. UniFirst Corp. (NYSE: UNF) has opened its $12 million industrial laundry plant in the Lake County city and say it has plans to grow its workforce.

UniFirst built the 64,000-square-foot facility on a vacant plot of land that previously housed an auto repair shop and gas station. The company employs 80 workers at the facility and says it expects to increase staff by 15% over the next few years to accommodate growth.

“Our new Hammond facility is at the forefront of the latest advances in uniform and textile service technologies and innovation,” UniFirst Chief Executive Officer Steven Sintros said in written remarks. “Its high-tech processing systems and our dedicated staff will allow us to maximize service levels to area business customers’ and will help ensure they are consistently receiving the very best products and personalized attention possible for years to come.”

The company says the facility has a focus on sustainability with energy efficiency investments that include heat reclaiming equipment, rooftop HVAC units and machinery that uses less natural resources.

UniFirst has operated in Hammond since 2016, when it acquired Arrow Uniform. The company received a zoning variance on the new facility from the Hammond City Council in 2018.

LATEST: The Lake County Coroner’s Office by July 5, 2022, had not responded to News 8’s request for the identity of the child who died.

HAMMOND, Ind. (WISH) — The body of a 1-year-old child pulled Thursday afternoon from a pond at an interstate interchange in northwest Indiana is the daughter of a woman believed to have been murdered in suburban Chicago, police say.

Investigators in Wheeling, Illinois, had been searching for Jaclyn “Angel” Dobbs, of Deerfield, Illinois. Her mother, Ja’nya Murphy, 21, was found strangled to death Tuesday night in what police believe was a murder in her apartment in Wheeling. The Chicago suburb is about 25 miles northwest of downtown.

A construction worker driving in the area Thursday called 911 to report seeing a body floating on the pond on the southwest loop of the interchange for I-80/I-94 at Kennedy Avenue, said Indiana State Police Sgt. Glen Fifield in an afternoon news conference at a hotel near the interstate interchange. Police closed off the exit while members of the Hammond Fire Department recovered the girl’s body and investigators searched the area for evidence.

The pond is about 2 miles east of the Illinois-Indiana state line.

The Lake County Coroner’s Office will resume its autopsy Friday to determine the girl’s cause of death.

An Indiana Department of Transportation traffic camera shows where the body of a girl was found Nov. 11, 2021, off Interstate 80/94 in Hammond, Indiana. (Photo from Livestream Provided)

WESTVILLE, HAMMOND, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) — A new economic impact study commissioned by Purdue University Northwest reveals the school adds nearly $750 million in total income annually in the region and supports more than 10,000 direct jobs. The study also shows one out of every 36 jobs in northwest Indiana is connected to a PNW degree. The institution, which consists of campuses in Westville and Hammond, says the study examined the economic impact of the school’s spending on major industries in the region.

In an interview with Inside INdiana Business, PNW Chancellor Thomas Keon said there is a definite return on the education investment.

“We hear so many negative things about the cost of going to college, to getting a degree at a university. This study showed that the cost benefit ratio is four times greater than the initial cost of the degree and shows for 14.9% return on investment,” said Keon.

The study, based on data from the 2019-2020 academic year, is based on job creation, salaries, and increased business productivity, among other factors

PNW says the impact accounts for two percent of gross regional product, including the accomplishments of students and alumni, research conducted, and start-ups launched as a result of PNW’s educational and engagement activities.

“Every dollar spent by students on a PNW education increases their lifetime earnings fourfold,” said Keon. “From a taxpayer perspective, every $1 invested at PNW returns $1.70 to the local economy, for a total value of $89.7 million in future tax revenue and government savings.”

Keon says the study also found the average bachelor’s degree graduate from PNW will see an increase in earnings of $22,200 each year compared to someone with a high school diploma.

“The results of this study further confirm PNW’s role as a premier metropolitan university, transforming students’ lives and our region at the most significant rate among all local public universities,” said Keon.

The study was conducted by Emsi Burning Glass, a labor market analytics firm based in Idaho. It conducted a similar study for Ivy Tech Community College in which the results were released in September.

Click here to view the economic study.

PORTAGE, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) — Portage-based MSI Express, a contract packager of consumer packaged goods, has acquired the operating assets of PacMoore Products Inc., which operates a similar business in Hammond.

MSI acquired all of PacMoore’s contract manufacturing operations, giving it additional capacity and capabilities in the food manufacturing and packaging space. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but it was backed by private equity firm HCI Equity Partners.

“PacMoore provides access to new customers and channels and is consistent with our consolidation strategy of adding capacity and complementary capabilities to better serve our growing roster of blue-chip CPG customers. We are excited to welcome the PacMoore team to the combined organization,” said Doug McCormick, HCI’s managing partner.

Last month, PacMoore sold its process technologies plant in Mooresville and its research and development extrusion facility in Illinois to Wisconsin-based Glanbia Nutritionals.

“Glanbia’s additional expertise, resources, people, and financials will not only maintain PacMoore’s current trajectory, but expedite it, allowing our growth to happen significantly faster and more efficiently in the spaces we’ve mastered over the last 3 decades,” PacMoore founder Bill Moore said on the company website.

Moore said between Glanbia’s 17 global manufacturing sites and MSI’s 13 U.S. production facilities, current PacMoore employees will have additional opportunities.