City in the Spotlight: Whiting
For a city with close proximity to Chicago, access to Lake Michigan and a small-town feel, there is one option in Northwest Indiana. Whiting is the only city or town in Lake County that meets all three criteria, and 125 years after their incorporation, the city is as strong as ever.
While any summer is a perfect time to visit Whiting, city officials and the Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce are working side by side on making 2014 a particularly special one. Quite a bit has been planned for the 125th anniversary celebration - a birthday party that on August 13 will be more than a month long.
It all kicked off with the city’s 95th Fourth of July parade, which featured Mickey and Minnie Mouse themselves as the grand marshals.
“You just can’t get them,” Mayor Joe Stahura said of landing the popular Disney couple for the parade. “They are doing four parades this year: New York, Chicago, L.A. and Whiting, Indiana. We feel blessed that they picked us, it was an unbelievable event with them here on the 4th.”
Stahura credits zoning administrator and events coordinator Mark Harbin, who put together the application and “fate that someone at Disney wanted to make it happen.”
The “Images of Whiting” show that featured local photography on July 11, the Great American Picnic the next day which showcased a giant cake of Whiting and Cruise Night, where celebrity and classic cars were on display downtown on July 16 were other special events designed to celebrate Whiting's birthday this summer.
The celebration concludes on August 13, when an open house at Whiting Lakefront Park will mark the recent progress of aesthetic and highly visible improvements at the park.
“We have a great lineup planned all the way to the 13th, so we hope everyone comes out and spends the summer in Whiting,” Harbin said.
The Lakefront Park project is in its fourth year. Stahura says it’s a “long term project with multiple phasing,” but once completed will provide a beautiful spot to enjoy Lake Michigan and an incomparable view of the Chicago skyline.
“The project is to take an underutilized piece of land and turn it into a high-impact recreational facility,” Stahura said. “All obstructions are now gone with a boardwalk on the shoreline in place.”
The project was aided by a $22 million grant provided by the Regional Development Authority (RDA).
“Together with expanded opportunities for additional residential and commercial development around the park and 119th Street, this project and related efforts under the Marquette Plan (such as the George Lake pedestrian bridge between Hammond and Whiting) have generated more than 200 construction jobs and transformed the park into an economic asset and attraction for the community,” said Dave Wellman, communications manager for the RDA.
Included in the improvement plans, approved by both the City Council and Plan Commission, is the creation of a new nature area, renovation of all existing facilities and a new gazebo event center on the shoreline. New parking facilities, renovation and expansion of the existing pathways and Whihala Beach boat harbor renovations are also planned. A new Whiting-Robertsdale Historical Museum is also included as part of the overall project.
Stahura said he hopes “95 percent” of the current work is completed by the August 13 open house.
Already calling it “a big improvement over what it was,” Stahura confirmed a lakefront restaurant is also planned for the area, which he says is “going to be a place where people can come and enjoy the day.”
Lakefront Park, which sits adjacent to the just as popular Whihala Beach, is already the favorite “go to” spot in the community for Deb Szymborski, a Whiting resident of 17 years.
“It’s spectacular,” she said. “All the additions like the boardwalk and gazebo have changed the lakefront here for the better.”
The Whiting Public Library, Szymborski says, is another gem.
“It is a beautiful (Andrew) Carnegie building that always has a lot going on,” she said while taking in an outdoor read on one of the benches at the Oliver Street location.
Library Director Rachael DeLuna keeps a wide range of historical facts about the location on hand including information on Standard Oil Company, which bought the land Whiting now sits in 1889 as a result of their need for a Midwestern industrial site convenient to rail and water transformation. By 1923, the company employed more than 4,000 workers as the city’s population ballooned to 10,000.
“This is a great city with wonderful people,” DeLuna said of present-day Whiting. “It’s an ideal spot to raise kids. The Mayor has done a great job improving the city over the last few years.”
Szymborski agrees, calling the people of Whiting “very friendly.”
“Everyone says hello to everyone whether they know them or not,” she said.
Szymborski’s favorite yearly event is Pierogi Fest, which in any year besides the 125th anniversary celebration would be the No. 1 can’t miss weekend in the city.
Organized by the Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce, Stahura says the city is “all hands on deck” in its support for the event that draws not only residents of the region, but visitors from throughout the nation and world.
“It has definitely helped put Whiting on the map,” Harbin added, noting that the Fest has been featured on both the Food Network and Travel Channel. “It does quite a bit for our city.”
Now in its 20th year, the final weekend in July has grown from a small town festival to one that is now nationally recognized with more than 250,000 people coming in from throughout the world, according to Karen Gajewski, executive director of the Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce.
“We have over 75 food vendors, over 80 art and craft vendors, games for children, and four stages of constant entertainment ranging from barbershop to blues, from rock to country, and of course Polka!” Gajewski said. “With the success of Pierogi Fest, the Chamber of Commerce is able to give back to our members and the community throughout the entire year, bringing events and reasons to shop, dine, and visit in Whiting.”
Szymborski said the best moments of the festival occur on opening night, when a parade rolls down 119th Street.
“The polka parade is really a great experience,” she said. “It’s meant to be funny and it is.”
“If you haven’t seen it, you need to try it at least once, it really is an awesome show,” Stahura added.
119th Street is the epicenter of Whiting, which only encompasses a little more than two square miles in area. But encompassed in that small area is a booming small business district that compliments the hometown feel everyone in Whiting is proud to maintain.
“There are a lot of businesses that have been established for many years,” Stahura said. “Whiting is an extremely loyal community - a place where people who are from here but live elsewhere always come back for Christmas or Pierogi Fest."
One of the oldest would be Whiting Flower Shop, a staple in the community for 114 years. Owned by the Klemm-Stawicke family for 84 years, the business was sold to a hairdresser before current owner Connie Salas began running the shop that sits in the heart of downtown Whiting in 1993.
Salas stresses the importance of shopping local, praising the Chamber’s merchants group (headed by Kathleen Ulm of The Junkyard Store) and Stahura on promoting Whiting businesses.
“The future of Whiting depends on how much people shop at local stores because quality should always come before best value,” Salas said. In addition, shopping at big box stores sometimes costs the consumer more in the long run because local-made products often have more durability.
Whiting Flower Shop specializes in providing flowers for weddings, corporate parties, baby showers, retirement parties and other similar events. They do work for BP, City Hall, Pekron Consulting among other local businesses.
“If you care about freshness, quality, custom design and service - you should shop here,” Salas said.
Region Signs, in its 11th year, is another local business that is a big part of the 125th anniversary, creating all the signs with the popular ‘125’ logo in green that can be seen throughout the city this summer.
“It’s Anytown, U.S.A. with some good development going on,” said Carolyn Sarvanidis, owner of Region Signs. One of her employees, Renee Dunn, is intrigued by a 500-pound little house that was added to the park recently.
“It looks really cool, but the mystery is how it got there. No one knows,” Dunn said.
Salas points out that for a small town, Whiting’s dining options are plentiful.
“Try the beer at Bulldog Brewing or go to the Calumet Bakery down the street,” she said.
Stahura says Keith’s is the place to go for a finer dining experience while Beggar's is a “fantastic restaurant that offers much more than just pizza.”
Restaurants and other businesses in Whiting are pretty loyal to the Chamber, which has been around since 1911 when it was created as the “Commercial Club” by 50 principal businessmen.
“Our mission here has always been the same: our purpose is to promote business growth and community involvement of all who live and work in the area,” Gajewski said. “We join together to improve the community for its residents and to foster the development of business, industry, and community. Together, the chamber does what no one person can accomplish alone.”
Right outside the Chamber are bicycles that can be rented, a program that has taken off in Whiting. On a nice summer day, about half of the people you see downtown are on bikes, which are often seen parked outside area businesses.
“We have seen more and more bike trails over the last few years and people are finally using them,” Stahura said. “It’s a great mode of transportation in the summer.”
Riding a bike on a nice summer day can only be topped with taking in a night of America’s Pastime. And Whiting has that, too.
The Northwest Indiana Oilmen are only in their third year of existence, but have already created a culture of winning in the Midwest Collegiate League - taking home the championship in their 2012 expansion year and finishing as the runner-up in 2013. According to Communications Director Brandon Vickrey, the Oilmen are in good shape to qualify for the playoffs this year as well.
“We have a good amount of (NCAA) Division I talent mixed in with D-II players,” Vickrey said. “(The Oilmen) provide a chance for many guys to come home and play in front of their home town fans.”
Vickrey said the Oilmen are somewhat of a “pre-minor league team” that offers collegiate athletes a chance to get “that minor league baseball experience” through traveling and playing a game every day.
“The league as a whole has been successful at doing that,” he said, noting that 19 former MCL players have been drafted to Major League Baseball and current Cincinnati Reds pitcher Tony Cingrani played in the league during the summer while at South Suburban College.
One of those 19, Larry Crisler, a Bishop Noll graduate and current Oilmen starter, was drafted by the Atlanta Braves this year.
The current makeup of the Oilmen is mostly former Northwest Indiana high school stars who are home from college.
“We have a wide-variety of guys from top tier programs like IU, Purdue, Butler, Valparaiso and a few from further away. We have a player from a Texas junior college who lives in Houston,” Vickrey said.
The Oilmen have a number of special events designed to drum up support from baseball fans in Whiting. Mr. Pierogi throws out the first pitch on the yearly “Whiting Community Night” - an event that in 2014 promoted Whiting Flower Shop, Centier Bank and BP as strong community staples. A Veterans benefit night and fundraiser for a Calumet College of St. Joseph’s baseball coach’s son who has a heart conditions are other outreach efforts the Oilmen have taken part in this year.
“We have put a huge emphasis on community outreach,” Vickrey said.
Oil City Stadium, where the team has a better than .700 winning percentage, opened in April, 2011 and is not only home to the Oilmen, but serves as the baseball home for Calumet College of St. Joseph and Whiting High School. The stadium is so good that Stahura says the city has been courted by a few minor league teams looking to play there, but none have been affiliated and thus the grounds will continue to serve as the home of the Oilmen, Eagles and Oilers for the time being.
“We’d have to do a few things to the field to make it work,” the Mayor said of the possibility of a minor league team relocating to Whiting. “It’s not that we aren’t willing to make it happen, but it is just not the time.”
Whiting High School serves as the chief institution of the School City of Whiting, which Stahura said has been helpful in providing input on the city’s future.
“It’s good that we can get input from high school kids on some projects and plans,” he said, praising the School City for recent accomplishments including the Science Olympiad team that recently finished second in the state competition behind Munster and were in the “middle of the pack” in the national competition.
“The business of a school system is very difficult right now, so I give them a lot of credit for where they are at.”
The city also works “with the best interests” of Calumet College of St. Joseph in mind, the Mayor said.
According to Linda Gajewski, a lifelong Whiting resident and current director of marketing and public relations at CCSJ, people are the school’s best asset.
“We are all family - the faculty and staff are all really involved with the students,” she said. “All students have a faculty/staff mentor to give them a one-on-one connection. Students always come first, which makes commencement always the best day of the year here.”
Calumet College, the first college in Northwest Indiana to offer a four-year degree, is growing both academically and athletically.
“Our science program is only four years old and is already the second most popular behind education,” Gajewski said.
Adding an athletic department a decade ago has “done wonders for enrollment,” Gajewski said, noting its continued growth with the addition of a women’s golf team in 2014 and bringing back men’s volleyball.
“By the next school year we will have 20 teams,” Gajewski said.
The school has also proved to be a valuable resource not only for the city of Whiting, but Hammond (where their campus sits with a Whiting p.o. box) as well.
“Our students have volunteered at 659 Art studio, Pierogi Fest and Oktoberfest,” Gajewski said. “We do more and more with the community all the time like taking part in beach clean-up and the WHAM bike ride.”
A graduate of the college herself, Gajewski has worked at the school for 12 years and has been in her current role for the last six.
“I love it,” she said. “I grew up here and am the college’s representative on the Chamber board.”
Stahura says he hopes to continue the strong partnership between Whiting and the college.
“Local colleges are often an untapped source for economic development,” he said. “As they continue to grow, it will be a win-win for the community and the college.”
A stellar view of the city, including the BP refinery, can be found from the top floor of Calumet College. The refinery takes up about a half of the city’s total area.
As BP’s largest United States refinery, 413,000 barrels are produced each day, which provides the Midwest and other parts of the country enough fuel to run 430,000 cars, 22,000 commercial trucks, 2,000 commercial jet liners, 10,000 tractors and 350,000 propane tanks. BP also supports nearly 60,000 jobs in Indiana and Illinois and spends more than $3 billion annually with outside vendors in the two states.
“BP is a great corporate partner of ours,” Stahura said. “When we need help they always step up and get involved. A lot of our projects and economic development strategies are through them. They play a big role and we are proud to have them as a partner.”
The future is bright
When development and improvements are completed at the park and streets, Whiting will become “a destination,” Karen Gajewski said.
“People want to be here, to shop here, to dine here, and to stay here,” she added. “This is the place people will want to spend their weekends in the summer, lounging on our beach, dining in one of our cafés and taking leisurely rides on our bike paths. The pride we have in our community shows, and the amenities that we have here are unlike any other city in Indiana.”
The mayor praises the people as the driving force to make that happen.
“Most people you talk to are proud to call Whiting home,” he said. “When you grow up in a small town environment, you really know everyone. That is a part of the mystique of this community.”
The best of Whiting
“The entire city!,” Karen Gajewski said. “Slotted between the Chicago border and BP, Whiting, with its lakefront park and beach, historical homes, and walkable business district has always been a “hidden gem.”
“The small-town feel, friendly people and the fact that everything is in walking distance,” Vickrey added.
Lakefront Park, White Oak Ave. and Front St.
Whihala Beach, White Oak Ave. and Park Rd.
Oil City Stadium, 1700 119th St.
Downtown Business District, 119th St. between Indianapolis Blvd. and New York Ave.
Keith’s Bar & Grill, 1872 Indianapolis Blvd. Ranked No. 1 on tripadvisor.com. Reviewer from Highland states: “We have never been more happy with the quality of food. At Keith's. The filets just melt in your mouth! My husband will not order anything else but the smoked shrimp, it's something he truly looks forward to. The lamb, the fish, it's all amazing! You will not be disappointed!”
Beggar’s Pizza, 1326 119th St.
Bulldog Brewing Co., 1409 119th St.
Winey Beach Cafe, 1350 119th St. - “Great food, drinks and service. This place is very small, but extremely friendly. It is a Key West-style place that is locally owned. They specialize in seafood, but I don’t like seafood so there are plenty of options for people who don’t.” - Deb Szymborski
Griller’s, Inc., 1240 119th St.
Whihala Ice Cream, 1709 119th St.
Sunrise Restaurant, 1342 119th St.
Midtown Station, 1928 New York Ave.
Pie Eyed, 1600 119th St.
Cool Creations, 1515 119th St.
Center Lounge and Restaurant, 1312 119th St.
CJ’s Cafe, 1452 119th St.
Dino’s Pizza, 1601 121st St.
San Luis Restaurant, 2141 Indianapolis Blvd.
Skeeter’s Diner, 1510 119th St.
Calumet College of St. Joseph, 2400 New York Ave.
Whiting High School, 1751 Oliver St.
Whiting Middle School, 1800 New York Ave.
Nathan Hale Elementary School, 1831 Oliver St.
Tina’s Play School, 1524 Steiber St.
Did you know?
The opening scene of the hit movie Rudy was filmed in Whiting. With a backdrop of the oil refinery, the movie opens with kids playing football in the winter and then running into a home. The home in the movie is still standing adjacent to Oil City Stadium.
Portions of “Four Friends,” “Light of Day” and “The Blues Brothers” also were shot in Whiting.
The Hoosier Theater Building is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Click here for more photos of Whiting!