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MERRILLVILLE, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) — The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission has given approval for Merrillville-based Northern Indiana Public Service Co. to increase its natural gas rates in a two-step process beginning in September. The utility says the average residential customer will see an expected overall increase of about $6 per month.

NIPSCO initially submitted its request for the rate increase in September 2021. The utility said at the time the additional revenue would be used to make infrastructure improvements, including replacing older gas lines.

“Customers expect service that is dependable and rates at the lowest cost possible,” NIPSCO President and Chief Operating Officer Mike Hooper said in written remarks. “This balanced outcome demonstrates a positive path toward continued investments in essential resources that will support safe operations, upgrading aging infrastructure and enhancing our customers’ experience.”

The first step in the rate increase will take place September 1, with the second step occurring in March 2023.

NIPSCO says the change marks a 10% increase, which is lower than the originally proposed 17%. The change also reduces the customer charge from the originally proposed $24.50 to $16.33.

The utility says the overall change is expected to generate an additional $71.8 million in revenue annually.

MICHIGAN CITY, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) — Federal, state and local officials will be on hand Monday to break ground on the much anticipated South Shore Double Track project. The $649 million project will add a second, 16.9-mile track next to the existing line between Gary and Michigan City.

Plans for the Double Track project have been in the works since 2016. In addition to the new track, the project will add four bridges and eight new platforms.

The Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, which is overseeing the project, says adding a second line will reduce travel time between Michigan City and Millennium Park in Chicago by 33 minutes.

The Indiana Economic Development Corp. says the project will result in “unmatched economic growth for the region and the state.” The project is scheduled for completion in 2024.

Governor Eric Holcomb will join Senator Todd Young (R-IN), Congressman Frank Mrvan (D-1), former Congressman Pete Visclosky, and FTA Region 5 Regional Administrator Kelley Brookins for the groundbreaking, which is scheduled for 10 a.m. local time.

GARY, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) — The Gary/Chicago International Airport Authority has announced it will resume independent management, operations and development of the airport. The airport is exiting its agreements, signed in 2014, with airport manager Avports and airport facilities developer Aviation Facilities Co., both based in Virginia.

The authority says the agreements were signed to assist in the evolution of offerings at the airport. After eight years, the airport says its sustained growth and added infrastructure offerings has positioned it to be independently operated.

“We are pleased to be able to exit these agreements with much more robust aviation-centric infrastructure, operations and facilities in place, allowing GCIA to strongly position itself for the coming years,” GCIA Board Authority Chairman Pete Visclosky said in written remarks. “Years of sustained growth and investment by public and private entities alike have created strong momentum allowing the airport to move towards its long-standing objective of a locally sustainable airport, and we thank both Avports and AFCO for their contributions over the past few years to our continued success.”

The airport cites the main runway extension project in 2015, as well as the completion of its U.S. Customs Facility in 2018 as two of the main improvements since signing the agreements with Avports and AFCO.

In 2020, the airport authority approved a lease agreement with UPS to begin cargo service operations.

Earlier this year, the airport completed an update to its Master Plan, which it says will guide the next 20-25 years of airport development and aviation growth.

“Avports is proud to have put GCIA into a position to control their own destiny and success,” said Avports CEO Jorge Roberts. “As GCIA takes steps toward their next phase of progress, Avports remains committed to providing the highest level of service during the upcoming transition.”

The airport did not immediately provide a time frame for the transition to be complete.

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.

GARY, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) — The chief executive officer of Pittsburgh-based U.S. Steel Corp. (NYSE: X) visited the Gary Works facility as the steelmaker begins construction on a $60 million pig iron caster. David Burritt says the project, expected to create 25 jobs, will improve the company’s self-sufficiency.

U.S. Steel first announced plans for the pig iron caster in February.

Pig iron is a raw material needed for electric arc furnaces, which the company says it plans to utilize for steel production as part of its advanced metallics strategy in addition to more traditional blast furnaces.

“This investment at Gary Works, to create the necessary material for our lower-emissions electric arc furnaces, is the perfect example of combining the best of integrated and mini mill technologies,” Barritt said in written remarks.

The caster will be fed with iron ore from U.S. Steel’s ore operations in Minnesota. The pig iron produced in Gary is expected to supply up to 50% of the ore-based metallics needed for the company’s Big River Steel Works in Arkansas.

“Gary Works is U. S. Steel’s largest manufacturing plant and its role in the Company and in this community is significant,” said Gary Works Vice President Daniel Killeen. “Knowing that the nearly 4,000 employees at Gary Works are not just contributing here, but we now get to utilize our blast furnace efficiency to contribute to the company’s new, most environmentally friendly operations at Big River Steel Works, is something we’re excited about.”

Pre-construction of the caster began in the first quarter with production expected to begin in early 2023.

Pictured above, left to right: Gus Atsas, President, USW Local 1014 Gary Primary Operations; Congressman Frank Mrvan; David B. Burritt, President & CEO, U.S. Steel; Scott Buckiso, SVP & Chief Manufacturing Officer North American Flat-Rolled Segment, U.S. Steel; and Dan Killeen, Vice President, U.S. Steel Gary Works.

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.”

MERRILLVILLE, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) — Indianapolis-based ProTeam Tactical Performance is preparing to open its first location outside of central Indiana. The company, which helps first responders recover from and prevent injuries in a manner similar to collegiate and professional athletes, will bring its model to Merrillville beginning May 23.

ProTeam Tactical Performance was founded by former Indianapolis Colts quarterback Jim Sorgi and former St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Joey Vandever.

The company says the new, 6,000-square-foot facility will provide athletic-minded rehab solutions and performance services to firefighters, police officers and other tactical professionals.

“We’ve been able to help many first responders throughout Central Indiana and are incredibly excited about what this new space will let us accomplish when it comes to improving the quality of life for first responders in Northern Indiana,” Vandever said in written remarks.. “These professionals signed up to serve our community. They want to be active and out there instead of on the sidelines recovering. They choose to put their lives on the line for us. It’s an honor to work alongside them and give these heroes the quality of care they deserve.” 

The northwest Indiana facility, located at 8279 Wright St in Merrillville, is ProTeam Tactical’s fifth location in Indiana.

Earlier this month, ProTeam Tactical unveiled its behavioral health platform, SHIELD. The platform allows users to self-evaluate depression, anxiety, PTSD, stress and other issues through questionnaires and then provides access to related resources.

GARY, Ind. (Inside INdiana Business) — While there has been progress to restore the fiscal solvency of the Gary Community School Corp. over the past five years, the state agency overseeing the recovery may extend the contract of the private company managing the district.

In an open letter to the community, GCSC Manager Dr. Paige McNulty said the Distressed Unit Appeal Board is discussing the contract it has with Florida-based MGT Consulting. The contract is set to expire at the end of June.

In 2017, the state appointed MGT to manage Gary Schools to improve the financial picture of the district. Last month, Gary schools reported a $2 million surplus for 2021 after having a deficit of more than $21 million just four years prior. The district called the surplus a “watershed moment.”

McNulty says most DUAB board members support renewing the MGT contract for a final, two-year period, that would lead to GCSC exiting distressed unit status.

“We are at this position because of the progress students, families, staff, and administrators have made together in recent years. We have eliminated the school district’s $22 million deficit, invested in modernizing our school buildings, increased teachers’ salaries, and extended the school day. This work is paying off,” said McNulty in the letter.

She says DUAB board members will next month hold a meeting in Gary to allow MGT to present its plan for the next two years. Residents will also have an opportunity to share what they would like to see.

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.