Hammond mayor outlines challenging year ahead in annual State of the City speech
Hammond Mayor Tom McDermott Jr. expects 2024 to be one of the most challenging years in his two decades as mayor. During his State of the City address to the Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday, he cited shrinking revenue combined with demands for higher wages.
"We're going into negotiations this year with police, fire, teamsters, operating engineers, and the last time I checked, people want more money — a lot more money," McDermott said.
While Hammond is seeing declining casino revenues, McDermott sees water sales as the key to the city's finances. He believes Hammond can make significant money by selling Lake Michigan water to other communities more cheaply than Chicago.
"But right now, we're sort of tapped out," McDermott explained. "We're literally tapped out. So you may hear word coming from the city of Hammond that we think that another filtration plant is in order."
McDermott said water department revenues have about tripled since he took over as mayor, though not without legal battles with its municipal customers.
To attract investment, the mayor says Hammond needs to capitalize on every bit of underutilized land. He pointed to the construction of a 400,000-square-foot spec building on land surrounded by train tracks, the Grand Calumet River and the Illinois state line.
"Even people from Hammond think they're in Illinois because you cross this railroad track and you're over there, anyway, and you're just, 'I am not in Hammond anymore.' You are actually in Hammond. It's crazy! There's like 15 acres just sitting there underutilized for decades," McDermott noted.
McDermott also defended the city's efforts to acquire the Reapers Realm property on the southwest corner of I-80/94 and Calumet Avenue, although he did express sympathy for the renters who operate the business.
"Hammond doesn't have the luxury to sit on property and let it go underutilized. That's a fact. We don't have this luxury. We're not Valparaiso. We're not Crown Point or Munster. We don't have the luxury to have 15 acres sitting there with a stupid haunted house wasting away. We've got to do our job," McDermott said.
He also hopes the former St. Margaret Hospital can be redeveloped to take advantage of the Quantum Corridor under development.
But the biggest project currently underway is the West Lake Corridor commuter rail branch. McDermott said it's completely redefining parts of the city and will bring positive benefits downtown.
"We're going to end up with a train maintenance depot. We're going to end up with two train stations, and then, after the line starts running, we're building the Downtown Hammond train station shortly thereafter," McDermott explained.
He said design work is currently underway on the future downtown station, which is one of the projects the city plans to pay for with a local food and beverage tax being considered by the Indiana General Assembly.
During his speech, McDermott also weighed in on the School City of Hammond's financial struggles. The mayor voiced his support for Superintendent Scott Miller. Instead, he placed the blame on the state funding system that pushes many school districts to turn to ballot referenda to bring in revenue.
"Seven years later, the voters have a change of mind. 'We don't want this referendum anymore.' So what do you do? You have to lay off teachers. It's ridiculous. It's ridiculous! And that's what we have to do in Hammond," McDermott said.
McDermott called the state's school funding system a failure and encouraged residents to voice their concerns to state legislators.