Chesterton Tribune

Tourism board member calls for action to make lake swimming safer

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

“If it saves a life, it saves a life.”

That’s what Judy Chaplin, member of the Porter County Convention, Recreation and Visitors Commission board, voiced shortly after she suggested her fellow commission members to ask the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore to take measures to alert visiting swimmers of rip currents.

Two days following the drowning of a 15-year-old Corey McFry from Portage, Chaplin at the end of Tuesday’s PCCRVC meeting called on her peers “to put some kind of pressure” on the National Park Service to implement a warning mechanism for vulnerable swimmers.

“Visitors come to this area and they do not know the Lake,” she said. “I really feel there should be a system.”

McFry was swimming with some friends at the Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk on Sunday when a rip current pulled him under the water. The beach there is unguarded like all the others inside the National Lakeshore with the exception of West Beach near Gary.

Offering his knowledge of national parks, PCCRVC attorney David Hollenbeck said that the NPS has a general “swim at your own risk” rule and there are often no indications of rip current warnings.

PCCRVC Executive Director Lorelei Weimer said that there is signage on the beaches of the national park that provide education about rip currents and their dangers but there is nothing on the beaches to alert swimmers when rip currents are present. To find out if there are rip current warnings, visitors would need to call the National Park or the Indiana Dunes Visitor Center, she said.

The state park beaches are guarded, however, and lifeguards there will usually make it known to swimmers of any dangers, Weimer said.

Even though the NPS has its way of doing things that will not likely change, the PCCRVC board agreed with Chaplin it would not be a bad idea to at least discuss with the NPS possible safety changes that could be made.

“It would behoove us to talk to the (NPS) first,” said PCCRVC member Mike Scott.

Chaplin said there were other persons beside herself who would like to see safer beaches. Fellow PCCRVC member John Johnson said it would be good to get together with all concerned groups and see if they could at least get more warning signs posted at the beaches in the National Park.

Weimer said she would make the effort to contact National Lakeshore officials with the board’s concerns.

McFry’s case is the second reported drowning at the Lakeshore this year. A New York resident lost his life on June 18 near Beverly Shores when his raft capsized due to strong winds.

“Every summer I can remember there have been drownings. It’s a dangerous, dangerous lake,” Hollenbeck said.

Lease agreement with NPS still an issue

Nine months have passed and it finally looks hopeful the General Service Administration will soon sign off on the 5-year lease agreement between the PCCRVC and the National Lakeshore for use of the Visitor Center which they both share.

With a memorandum of understanding finalized with the NPS in November, it was just last week when someone from the GSA responded to the ensuing lease, Hollenbeck said.

Only one holdup remains, however. The GSA has included a document in the lease regarding the improvements and usage of the building that is different and conflicts with the documents submitted in the MOU, Weimer said.

The PCCRVC has communicated the concern directly to the GSA and is again waiting to receive a response.

Without the lease agreement in effect, no payments from the NPS are being made to the PCCRVC for using the building which is trying the patience of a few commission members.

“This is ridiculous,” Scott said.

Weimer said her agency has been dipping into savings to pay for day-to-day expenses while waiting it out for the lease to be approved.

PCCRVC President Mitch Peters said it is evident the commission is “not having luck with the bureaucracy because it is circular” and said if the board needs to, it will consider looking at alternative ways to get the lease money.

Hollenbeck said he feels confident that an agreement will be made shortly and once it happens, the NPS will retroactively pay the lease in full.

Dunes video series going viral

It hasn’t reached as high a number of views as the sneezing panda, but the new video series Dunes 101, produced by the tourism commission, is picking up a respectable number of YouTube viewers.

Weimer said the series was launched two weeks ago and has gotten over 800 views with 100 in just one day alone. The goal is to get out-of-towners, as well as locals, to understand the differences between the Dunes state and national parks.

The Indiana Dunes YouTube channel has received 15,664 views in a two-year span.

Weimer said the next video series will highlight unique lodging sites and later videos will be created about communities in Porter County.

In other news, the PCCRVC discovered 27 signs either missing or vandalized on its nine bike loops which connect communities county-wide. Almost 1,000 signs exist on the routes to direct bikers. The contracted company Sign Write Signs will replace the missing signs, Weimer said.

Meanwhile, Operations Director Patti Boyer said the number of visitors to the Visitors Center was 12,286 for the month of June, bringing the year-to-date total to 30,292.

Posted 7/11/2012