City in the Spotlight: Hammond

By: Tim Moran Last Updated: January 27, 2014

When strolling through Lake County, for an extended stay or just one day, make sure to spend some time in Hammond. The city has a lot to offer in the world of entertainment, sports and history and has been a destination spot for Midwestern travelers for years.

“It seems like the city is making great strides and offers something different every time,” said Thomas Hildebranski, a Purdue University student who lives in bordering Whiting. He is one of numerous Northwest Indiana residents that make Hammond the spot to be in Lake County.

A revitalized downtown area with a number of hot spots coupled with a popular Casino on the lakefront and an event-packed lineup at Wolf Lake Pavilion have contributed to the attractive historic nature Hammond already boasts.

Nick Loxas, general manager of Olympia Lanes, was born and raised in Hammond and is proud to do business in the town he calls home despite living in nearby Dyer as an adult.

A graduate of Clark High School, Loxas has “great memories” of playing little league baseball at Forsythe Park in the city’s Robertsdale neighborhood.

“I will always cherish the 30 years I lived in Hammond,” he said. “It’s also positive to see the city doing its best to survive in a down economy and working hard to bring business and social activities to our nice community.”

Olympia Lanes, located at 4150 Calumet Ave., is a popular spot for bowling - often drawing quite a crowd during Friday afternoon league events.

“We’re a popular place to provide recreational activities for local bowlers and those looking for a nice place to bring the family,” Loxas said.

Adding that “bowling is a great activity for all generations to enjoy,” Loxas points out that Olympia Lanes is active in the Hammond community - providing the site for youth bowlers sponsored by the Hammond Youth Activities Fund. The South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority sponsors a Senior Pro Bowlers Tournament at the Lanes every August.

Click here for more photos of Hammond!

The South Shore CVA is located at the Indiana Welcome Center, 7770 Corinne Dr. which is another popular destination for Hammond residents and visitors.

At the Center, visitors are immediately informed of the city’s strong connection to the cult-classic movie “A Christmas Story,” with the iconic image of “Flick” getting his tongue stuck to an icy pole portrayed in the form of a statue outside the Center.

Written by Hammond native Jean Shepherd, “A Christmas Story” is based in Hohman, Indiana - a fictional town based on Hammond. The name “Hohman” came from Hohman Ave., one of the major thoroughfares in Hammond. The “A Christmas Story Comes Home” exhibit was a popular attraction during the Christmas season of 2013, when it made its debut on the 30th anniversary of the popular holiday movie.

The Welcome Center has other features as well, including the home of the John Dillinger Museum. “As a local I liked the Dillinger exhibit the best. For a visitor it helps to get an overall view of the area,” one Hammond resident said about the Welcome Center on Trip Advisor.

The Welcome Center has brought in more than 3 million people to Northwest Indiana, according to Speros Batistatos, president/CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority.

“Our work speaks for itself,” said Batistatos, while noting the success of the “A Christmas Story Comes Home” exhibit that attracted visitors nationwide. “We’ve invested $10 million into the (Indiana Welcome Center) building and the city.

“Any community would be thrilled to have our facility and staff domiciled in their city. We are pleased to be in Hammond, a gateway to our state. We are very pleased with our membership and happy to do what we do for Hammond, Lake County, our region and state.”

The Pavilion at Wolf Lake is the “premier concert and community event venue in Lake County,” according to Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr.’s welcome letter on the Pavilion’s website. Rich in history, the Pavilion (managed by the Hammond Port Authority), hosts the annual Festival of the Lakes concert in July among many other events and attracts more than 15,000 concert goers every year.

Of course, Hammond is also one of the few major Indiana towns located on the shores of Lake Michigan, with easy access to Chicago via the Skyway (I-90), the South Shore Line or Interstate 94. The Horseshoe (Hammond) Casino, located right on the lake, brings in visitors from all around to the many high-profile comedy, music and sports-related acts that are hosted there. The Venue is the site for shows put on by Lisa Lampanelli, Boyz II Men & Bobby Brown and several others.

The casino is expected to bring in somewhere around $33 million for Hammond this year, according to McDermott.

“The (casino) money is a blessing,” the Mayor said. “Without the gaming boats, things would be a lot different - but we are in good shape.”

Hammond has a particular edge of neighboring riverboat cities because the Horseshoe is the closest casino to Chicago.

“We want to maintain that status,” McDermott said.

Another main source of revenue for the city, McDermott says, is the water. Hammond sells water to nearby Illinois cities Lansing, Chicago Heights and Calumet City in addition to neighboring Munster.

“Our water profit is about $4 million a year,” McDermott said. “We’d like to soon start using our water revenue for the college-bound project.”

The college-bound program allows students who maintain average or better grades in high school and college to have their tuition paid for through a $10,000 scholarship that is currently funded by casino revenue.

“We’ve graduated hundreds of kids through that program and a lot of them have been able to find jobs with the city and elsewhere,” McDermott said. The program earned Hammond the 2007 national award for government innovation by the United States Conference of Mayors.

From the Casino, it is a pleasant trek south on U.S. 41 and over to Hohman Ave. to see a revamped Downtown Hammond, an area devoted to keeping the relics of the past while providing world-class entertainment and services for the future.

The Downtown Hammond Council (DHC) was established in 1954 to help revitalize, beautify and promote the Downtown district.

“We are excited that people are rediscovering our Downtown district,” said Karen Maravilla, president of the DHC and owner of ‘It’s Just Serendipity’ and ‘El Taco Real Restaurant.’ “New businesses are choosing to make Downtown Hammond their home and visitors are exploring and rediscovering our district.”

Maravilla and Raymundo Garcia are the owners of ‘It’s Just Serendipity,’ known to locals as a popular shopping destination known as “The Dip.” Shoppers can find custom gift baskets and antiques among other items.

Other unique stores Downtown include The Attic, Franciscan St. Margaret Gift Shop, The Junk Fairy and Sleek-n-Chic Boutique.

But the biggest secret, according to Maravilla, is a place simply called EAT.

“Located on the southeast corner of Sibley and Hohman, EAT is the latest project of Raymundo Garcia, longtime manager of El Taco Real. Frustrated with his inability to cater to large parties at El Taco Real, Garcia is building a venue that will accommodate large private parties. Weddings, birthdays and gatherings of all kinds will be able to enjoy the famous fare from one of Northwest Indiana’s most popular eateries,” Maravilla said.

McDermott says Maravilla and the DHC do “a great job promoting Downtown Hammond.”

“The DHC is working with us to ensure Downtown Hammond is a place where there are good, white-collar jobs,” McDermott said.

Not far from EAT, the Towle Theater,5205 Hohman Ave., is an anchor for the Downtown area along with other historic structures such as the Calumet Building (now home to First Midwest bank) and the La Salle Hotel. Harrison Park, which now boasts new tennis courts, and the Rotunda Area are nice places to relax, exercise or have a picnic.

The Theater has a rich history in itself. It sits in the same spot at the Towle Opera House, which was built in 1903 and was the center of culture and entertainment in Hammond until 1911. The site reverted back to its original use in 2003, when the current Towle Theater began hosting shows.

“We are pulling a lot of people to downtown Hammond,” said Jeff Casey, managing director of the Towle Theater. “We are a strong anchor here - paired perfectly with the Paul Henry Gallery and other art places here, which is good for the city.”

Casey says seeing a show at the theater is “super affordable,” with tickets at just $17.

“We offer professional, quality theater at community theater prices,” he said. The Theater’s subscription series includes four shows (two musicals, two non-musicals) and the yearly Holiday Show that takes place in December.

Off the beaten path, the city showcases beautiful neighborhoods such as Forest Avenue and Woodmar.

McDermott recommends visitors drive down Forest Avenue, right along the state line, to view the “beautiful homes” that make up the historic neighborhood.

McDermott has been associated with Hammond his entire life, as his father, Thomas McDermott Sr., was Mayor of the city from 1984 to 1992. McDermott, Jr. says attending the Little Red Schoolhouse Festival and taking in the fireworks displays on the Fourth of July at Harrison Park are among his favorite childhood memories.

The city’s rich history dates back to the 1802, even before Marcus Towle was elected the city’s first Mayor in 1884. The city was home to the Hammond Pros, a professional football team in the early 1920s that would later become the Akron Pros, winners of one of the first-ever NFL Championships. A large packing house commissioned by the George H. Hammond company rivaled the famed Union Stock Yards in Chicago during the late 1800s, according to the Encyclopedia of Chicago.

The city is bicycle friendly, with a scenic path connecting the downtown area to the Hyde Park neighborhood bordered by Conkey Street. Other side streets connect Calumet, Hohman and Columbia - providing active transportation between the downtown and neighborhoods.

McDermott says bike paths connect Hammond to Munster, Highland and Chicago.

Four bridges for bicyclists are currently under construction, with two different paths that cross 165th Street set to open by the summer of 2014.

“Another bike trail that will go through Wolf Lake to the north side will connect people to an area I'm sure 95 percent of Hammond residents have never been,” McDermott said. “We are really looking forward to that opening up in the summer as well.”

The Hammond Parks Department manages a number of popular locales, including the Hammond Civic Center, located at 5825 Sohl Ave. The Civic Center offers racquetball courts, weight rooms and an indoor swimming pool.

“We have invested a lot of money into our parks and bike paths,” McDermott said. “We are extremely proud of that.”

ATTRACTIONS:

Horseshoe Casino, 777 Casino Center Drive

Indiana Welcome Center, 7770 Corinne Dr.

The Pavillion at Wolf Lake

Towle Theater, 5205 Hohman Ave.

Hammond INnovation Center, 5209 Hohman Ave.

TOP RESTAURANTS:

El Taco Real, 935 Hoffman St., Ranked No. 1 on tripadvisor.com. Reviewer from Gary says: “Great authentic Mexican restaurant. The food is very tasty and properly prepared. The staff is very friendly and attentive. 'nuff said.”

McDermott agrees that El Taco Real is the top restaurant in Hammond.

“I go there quite often,” he said, noting that when the staff sees him walk in they immediately begin making a 'Bistec Ranchero' - his favorite dish.

“I’m a huge fan of Mexican food,” the Mayor added.

Other restaurants ranked high on Trip Advisor include:

Lung Wah Restaurant, 3240 169th St.

Jack Binion’s Steakhouse, at the Horseshoe Casino

Langel’s Pizzeria, 2833 Highway Ave.

Madvek’s Dog House, 6923 Calumet Ave.

Maravilla says Hammond visitors will also want to dine at Nick and George’s Restaurant, which she says has the best hand-cut french fries and burgers.

“The Blue Room Cafe also offers dining in addition to music,” she added.

Up for Grabs, a restaurant in the city’s Robertsdale neighborhood, is a good under-the-radar spot, according to McDermott.

With a number of authentic Mexican restaurants in Hammond, McDermott also applauds La Fogata as another “top notch” eatery despite being in the area for less than a year.

“Competing with El Taco Real isn’t easy, but they have been doing well here,” McDermott said.

HIGH SCHOOLS AND COLLEGES:

Calumet College of St. Joseph, Purdue University Calumet, Hammond High School, George Rogers Clark High School, Morton High School, Area Career Center, Gavit High School, Hammond Academy of Science and Technology (charter school), Bishop Noll Institute

GOVERNMENT:

Hammond is governed by the Mayor and a nine-person City Council. All current office holders are Democrats.

“We work really well with the Council,” McDermott says. “A happy Council is a good Council.”

FAMILY-FRIENDLY EVENTS:

The DHC hosts a number of fun events throughout the year.

The Eat, Shop & Rock: Browse to the Beat Sidewalk Sale & Fest is a celebration of the 1960s, 1970s and The Beatles. It is held annually on the fourth Saturday in June. The fifth annual event is already set for June 28, 2014 at Hohman Avenue and Williams Street.

The Bizarre Bazaar is also held annually, on the third Saturday in September. This event, now in its ninth year, will be held on September 20, 2014 at Harrison Park.

“A wacky, outrageous day of fun for the entire family includes live music, a car show, kids games and arts activities,” Maravilla said.

McDermott always looks forward to The Festival of the Lakes, a five-day music festival that takes place every summer at Wolf Lake Pavilion. A carnival and golf outing usually accompany the music, which is often featured by big name artists such as Smokey Robinson and Blues Traveler.

Save for a $15 fee to park, the event is free and takes place during the third week of July.

“They have latin, rock and country music - a good variety to cater to our demographics,” McDermott said.

The Whiting Hammond After Midnight (WHAM) Bike Ride is a 30-mile ride through Northwest Indiana that will take place for the second time this summer. Bikers take off at midnight for an active and unique experience.

“That’s a fun one,” McDermott said. “It’s outstanding.”

We asked you:

We polled some of our Facebook fans from Hammond on their favorite memories growing up in the city. Here are some of your responses:

“The Town House bowling alley and the roller dome,” Rob Krucek

“Ice skating at Jefferson Park, Wicker Park pool, riding bikes everywhere, WoodMar Mall, House of Pizza and feeling like I didn’t have a care in the world!,” Connie George Sikora

“Playing countless baseball, basketball and football games. Going to Downtown Hammond and Edison Pool and playing with all the kids that lived in my neighborhood,” Kevin Posey

“Kick the can in the alley behind my house and swimming every day at the Douglas Park pool,” Jan Rozich

Did you know?

Hammond is home to the second largest police memorial in the state of Indiana.

Cabela’s is a major business in Hammond, attracting motorists with a facility visible from Interstate 94.

The First Baptist Church of Hammond has one of the largest church congregations in the nation.

More info on Hammond

For an interactive map