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Mayor: Washington Park's 'swim at your own risk' policy necessitated by lack of applicants

MICHIGAN CITY — As Washington Park is readied for its second weekend after opening for the holiday, the city is explaining why lifeguard stands will again be empty.

Mayor Duane Parry said in a statement that the problem was not money, but a lack of applicants.

The city posted ads on Feb. 6 for all seasonal positions, including lifeguards, the mayor said.

“The City received only one application from a returning lifeguard from last year, and no others with required qualifications.”

He said the COVID-19 outbreak was a big reason.

“Lifeguarding has always been a high-risk job. But amid the coronavirus pandemic, those who work to protect beachgoers are facing a new level of danger,” Parry said.

“From stubbed toes to cardiac arrests, open water lifeguards are trained to act as first responders for all manner of medical emergencies that can happen at the beach, often putting them in very close proximity to beachgoers,” he said.

“When it comes to making water rescues, lifeguards must come in direct physical contact with people who might be spitting up water or gasping for air. This aspect of their job raises new concerns due to the ways that the virus that causes COVID-19 spreads.”

Kathy Workman of the Michigan City YMCA said she tested dozens of people for certification this year, “but unfortunately, none passed the prerequisite.”

To further complicate matters, she said, “At this time the American Red Cross is not allowing the ‘hands-on’ portion of the testing due to COVID-19, so this put hiring at a standstill.”

“With all of this information, and the fact that the citizens want and desire the beachfront to be opened, we must make the tough decision to swim at your own risk when visiting our beachfront,” Parry said.

An official with the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project remains critical of the decision, saying the signs are not effective.

“Swim at your own risk is not enough,” said Dave Benjamin, GLSRP executive director. “Water safety is not common sense and most people don’t understand that there is a clear distinction between ‘Knowing how to swim’ and ‘Knowing how to survive’ a drowning incident.”

If a person does not know the true risks of drowning, “then they cannot properly assess the ‘Risk vs. Reward’ decision-making process around water,” he said. “One has to know and understand the true risks associated with water to be able to ‘Swim at your own risk.’ Most people do not.”

Benjamin also said “’Swim at your own risk’ does not absolve any beach of lawsuits in the event of a drowning, especially if and when a drowning happens during lifeguard hours and those lifeguards are not there because they were terminated.”

The GLSRP has a strong history in Michigan City, according to Benjamin, including Water Safety presentations in schools, Open Water Lifeguard In-service Trainings, and First Responder In-service Trainings.

“Water safety is not common sense, yet it is assumed to be common sense,” he said.

“The mass population does not know or understand that drowning is one of the leading causes of accidental death in the United States and the world.”

More information on drowning and ways to protect yourself and others can be found at the organization’s website, glsrp.org/.


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Barker Mansion closed, but new director busy behind scenes and planning for reopening

MICHIGAN CITY — “To me, a gilded-age mansion was like a dream come true.”

Those were the words of Sarah Berndt, new director of Barker Mansion.

Berndt said part of her postgraduate work included a study of turn-of-the-century domestic interior spaces. And, she’s always been drawn to local community-driven museums.

She said her new position allows her “to combine my academic interest with local-level museum work in a way I find compelling and exciting.”

A native of Westfield, Indiana, Berndt was looking for museum positions closer to home and family when she applied for the position at Barker Mansion.

After receiving Bachelor of Arts degrees in anthropology and art history at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, she earned a Master of Arts in American Material Culture from the University of Delaware.

Her previous positions include museum assistant at the Augustana College Teaching Museum of Art, in addition to being a school and family programs intern and Lois F. McNeil fellow at the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library in Winterthur, Delaware.

Most recently, she served as assistant director of the Porter County Museum, where she coordinated hands-on programming and interactive exhibits for multiple audiences. She also managed the registration, exhibit and care of the museum collection; and supervised and trained front-of-house staff and volunteers.

“I love Midwestern history,” she said. “Being away from it deepened my love for the history of where I’m from. I felt I could bring this professional museum skill set back home.”

Berndt is especially excited about engaging the local community with Barker Mansion, though the site at 631 Washington St. remains closed indefinitely due to COVID-19.

“I want to give people a reason to come here, even if they aren’t interested in history,” she said. “We don’t want people to come once and then they’ve seen it. We can expand the story and relate it to community members.”

Berndt is interested in tackling topics of special interest to Michigan City. For example, the Haskell & Barker Car Co. was the largest employer in Indiana at one time, and it’s part of the living memories of area residents, she said.

She began her position on Jan. 22, following past directors Emily Reth and Jessica Rosier.

“They laid a firm foundation creating a strong set of programs that I can continue to build on,” Berndt said.

And at those programs, Berndt enjoyed talking to the public until the mansion closed on March 17.

“I love that this is a place where people can share memories of what it’s like to live in this community,” she said.

“It’s also fun to have conversations with those from out of town to hear about their travels and what brought them here,” Berndt said.

Until the mansion opens back up, under whatever conditions are required, Berndt has been busy behind the scenes.

“While we realize that there is no substitute for experiencing the mansion in person, we’re utilizing digital platforms like blog posts, social media, and YouTube to showcase artifacts and stories that the public can enjoy from home,” she said.

In addition to programming, Berndt is excited about “continuing to research and ‘flush out’ stories of individuals that were here” as well as transforming some underutilized spaces, such as those in the basement.

“This place is huge. There’s a sense of awe and wonder here. I enjoy just being in this space,” she said.

Her favorite room?

“I really like the Butler’s Pantry,” Berndt said. “I love the light in that space and it’s a cool space to think about as far as the modernity of it.”

She pointed out how the sinks there contain a high zinc content so porcelain dishes dent it and don’t break as easily.

Berndt went on to explain how this functional, behind-the-scenes space demonstrates how the mansion was very “cutting-edge” for its time. It was one of the first houses in Michigan City to have electricity, using generators from the factory, she said.

In her spare time, Berndt enjoys attending local and regional music performances, and hiking, especially in the dunes. She also loves to bake and is drawn to old cookbooks.

“I study them and see if I can re-create those recipes,” she explained. She’s also taken on the “fun challenge” of baking vegan recipes for friends.

Despite the unexpected challenges she’s encountered in her new position, Berndt looks forward to what the future brings for Barker Mansion and what she is able to offer.

“I feel strongly about working at a place that directly affects its community,” she said. “To be able to help develop a sense of place here – for the residents to have a sense of ownership of the place – is important to me.”


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175th annual La Porte County Fair officially canceled

La PORTE — There will be a 175th annual La Porte County Fair, but it will come a year late after organizers on Friday announced the cancellation of this summer’s event.

“After careful thought and deliberation, the La Porte County Agricultural Association has made the difficult decision to cancel the 2020 La Porte County Fair originally scheduled for July 12-18,” according to Steve Mrozinski, president of the Ag Association Board of Directors.

“For the last 174 years, the La Porte County Fair has been held without hesitation and the Board is extremely proud of that,” he said in a statement.

“However, our priority is the safety of all of those involved in making our Fair great. After reviewing federal, state and local guidelines, and knowing how quickly and easily the COVID-19 virus spreads in large groups of people, the Board did not feel it would be possible nor prudent to have the Fair at this time.”

Mrozinski said uncertainty around planning for large gatherings and ensuring proper implementation of COVID-19 safety protocols was a big factor in the decision.

The decision was not unexpected following last week’s announcement by the Purdue University Extension – La Porte County that in place of 4-H judging and showing at the fair, it will conduct a “hybrid 4-H experience.” That will include a July virtual exhibition and fall Showcase of Excellence for non-market animals and static projects.

That decision was made “after review of the requirements and considerations needed for animal and non-animal exhibition, along with concern for our most vulnerable 4-H volunteers and families,” extension educators MaryJo Moncheski and Gayle O’Connor wrote in a letter to the 4-H community.

“Over 60 percent of the La Porte County volunteer base is considered ‘at-risk’ and this does not include 4-H families,” they wrote. “Unfortunately, the risks outweigh the benefits of having a live exhibition in conjunction with the La Porte County Fair.”

They said the decision was based on conversations with the county’s Extension Board, Ag Association, 4-H Council and 4-H community.

“These conversations have always been centered on the health and safety of volunteers, members and staff...,” they wrote.

Also announced Friday was cancellation of the 170th Porter County Fair.

“After much discussion and careful consideration for the well-being of our fair volunteers, vendors and patrons, and due to the recent regulations set by the Purdue Extension, it’s with great sadness that we announce this year’s Porter County Fair has been canceled,” a statement from the Porter County 4-H Council Executive Committee said.

All 4-H exhibitions will be held digitally, and grandstand concerts are being rescheduled to next year. Ticket holders will receive an email with updates, and given an opportunity to refund their tickets within the next week.

“The fair is put on entirely by volunteers who put their blood, sweat, tears, and love into the fair – and we are as heartbroken as you are,” the statement said. “Please respect those who work hard to make the fair a reality every year and refrain from negativity during this time. We are also mourning the loss of our favorite 10 days of summer, and missing the friendships that will have to be put on hold until next year.”

La Porte and Porter join St. Joseph, Starke, Lake and Marshall counties in canceling their fairs for 2020.

Only Jasper County in the area is still planning a fair.

An statement from the Jasper County Fair Board on Thursday said, “As of May 26, we are planning to have a 2020 Jasper County Fair. It will be scaled back from previous years – entertainment and the parade have been canceled ... The Jasper County Fair Board is still working on details and scheduling. The exact structure of the 2020 Fair will be dependent upon local/state public health guidelines.”

La Porte County Fair officials will now concentrate on 2021, according to Don Stoner, Fair manager.

“Although an extremely difficult decision, the Board decided that canceling this year’s Fair was in the best interests of all those involved,” he said.

“However, this will allow us to focus our efforts on 2021 and what will still be the 175th year of the La Porte County Fair. The Fair Board will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that the 175th Fair will be one of the best.”

Those who have already purchased tickets for the Fair or any of the scheduled musical acts, including Toby Keith, will receive a separate communication from the Fair Office in the coming weeks as to how those tickets will be handled.

Any questions regarding 4-H and La Porte County Virtual 4-H should be directed to the Purdue Extension’s La Porte Office at 219-324-9407.


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La Porte County Lifeline grants available to help small businesses hurt by COVID-19

La PORTE — La Porte County is now accepting applications for a relief program aimed at providing support to small businesses suffering from the economic devastation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Wednesday, the La Porte County Office of Community and Economic Development launched its new La Porte County Action Fund Grant initiative, which provides up to $10,000 in assistance to businesses operating in unincorporated portions of the county.

Companies can use the grant dollars to help cover payroll, inventory, rent, utilities and other functions vital to keeping their operation going amid the recent economic downturn.

Small businesses throughout the county have the opportunity to “take advantage of a lifeline,” board president Sheila Matias said.

“We as county leaders are aggressively doing everything we possibly can to tap into all programs that the State of Indiana and the federal government have approved through the CARES Act,” she said.

“Our small business community is the backbone of our local economy, providing paychecks and jobs for our citizens and families. These vitally important small businesses have been hard hit by this economic crisis, making these lifeline grants even more critical.”

Applications will be accepted through Friday, June 12, at 4 p.m. To be eligible, applying businesses must:

Be located in unincorporated areas of the county outside of Michigan City, La Porte and other chartered towns

Be willing to certify qualified employees that are within the Department of Housing and Urban Development income guidelines

Agree to all conditions, responsibilities and reporting set forth by the Indiana Office of Rural and Community Affairs, including but not limited to income certification and payroll information

Must use funds within two months of date of award

Must use the local grant money for other operating costs of the previously received federal COVID-related assistance, including the Payroll Protection Program or Economic Injury Disaster Loan

The Office of Community and Economic Development is rolling out the program thanks to a $250,000 grant ORCA awarded the county in late April through its federal Community Development Block Grant program. More than 60 Indiana communities received funding.

Tony Rodriguez, director of the Office of Community and Economic Development, updated members of the county Redevelopment Commission on the initiative during its meeting Wednesday.

He said the grants will provide a “lifeline” to local small businesses, helping them retain their workforces through a time of unprecedented financial hardship.

“This whole process is about getting much-needed resources into the hands of some of these small businesses and entrepreneurs that are, by no fault of their own, in tremendously dire straits,” he said.

A grant committee – comprised of members of the redevelopment commission, with Auditor Joie Winski serving as ex-officio member – will review applications for the program. They will submit recommendations to ORCA, which will provide final approval, Rodriguez said.

The Office of Community and Economic Development will accept applications for the first round of grant funding through 4 p.m. Friday, June 12.

If any of the $250,000 in CDBG money remains after the initial phase of distribution, the office will reopen the application process.

“It is our job to do everything we possibly can to make a difference for our community during these unprecedented times,” Randy Novak, president of the La Porte County Council, said.

“This is an example of how in times of crisis, we can step up and make a difference in many small business owners’ lives.”

Grant applications and additional information are available on the La Porte County website, laporteco.in.gov/la-porte-county -action-fund-grant.

The Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center is assisting in the promotion of the LCAF grant for small businesses.

“From the Economic Injury Disaster Loans and Paycheck Protection loans, La Porte County Community and Economic Development has helped us to promote the process and assist businesses to access these funds,” said Lorri Feldt, regional director.

“We are happy to do the same and keep small businesses alive in La Porte County.”

Payroll, lease/rent payments, capital equipment purchases, inventory, and COVID‐related expenses required to operate the business safely are examples of the kinds of eligible expenses which can be funded with this grant, Feldt said.

More information regarding the fund and how to apply can be found on the La Porte County website, laporteco.in.gov.