Wow… What a Year!

What a year! Let me congratulate you on getting through one of the most unfathomable years we have seen in recent decades. From early in the year with news about a strange and novel Corona virus, to the heated demonstrations about police violence and the loss of life, to the great divide in our national politics, to the loss of jobs, closed businesses, and parents adjusting to a new way to school our children, one might say that there is not one word to describe 2020. However, it’s over. And as we all break down the Amazon boxes stacked in our homes for the recycling bin, we realize that we persisted. We adapted; we rose to the challenge which is what we do. Our region has been through a lot over the years. The decline of the steel mills, loss of those high paying jobs, and the shifting population away from the big three cities to the north changed our landscape and way of life. Now, almost all of the 19 cities and towns across Lake County are starting to thrive and for the first time we see an increase of population growth in the region. People coming back and moving into our county from other areas. This is good news for the region and one to celebrate. And as the Town of Merrillville discusses plans to celebrate its 50th Birthday this year in December, there is much to celebrate.

Naturally, COVID-19 dominated our lives this year making us all deal with the terrible global pandemic. The Town Council on several occasions had to close town governmental buildings to keep visitors and employees safe from this wide-spreading virus. When open, we had to implement safety procedures requiring face mask use, temperature checks at the front door, remodel town offices, and practice social distancing all of which you are all familiar with by now. Council and other meetings took place via Zoom calls, and we had to all be patient and understanding more than ever before. But we did it. The streetlights stayed on, our first responders worked tirelessly serving and protecting, and we experienced one of the most aggressive building years the town has seen in years.

The Town Council, serving like any other corporate board of directors in difficult times, was tasked to make many difficult decisions about the town budget, make cuts due to lower tax revenues due to COVID, and keep the budget flat moving into the new year due to uncertainties in the 2021 budget. Many projects and street paving were put on hold in 2020 and major purchases like equipment, new police cars, and updates to infrastructure was halted.

I am very pleased to announce that the council will start to catch up next year as we hopefully see things come back to normal. We are planning two very aggressive years of paving of our worse neighborhood streets in 2021 and 2022. A bond issue for $5M each year, one from the Town Council, and the other from the Redevelopment Commission will allow us to get caught up on street repair and road paving. We will also continue to make road improvements to other major streets using TIF (Tax Increment Financing) district funds to roads in or close to those designated districts.

Although Ward 5 didn’t receive as many improvements as I would have liked, we did get projects accomplished in spite of COVID. You may have noticed the new 93rd Avenue project with repaving, intersection improvements, and a new ‘Boulevard’ look which will include center planters and beautiful plantings coming this spring. Neighborhood improvements in some areas were accomplished with many more planned.

The Town was simply in a ‘maintenance’ mode due to the uncertainty of the town budget. We were very conservative not knowing what would happen during this crazy year. But we are finished, like everyone, with 2020 and we will embrace whatever 2021 brings us, because after 2020, can’t we all handle anything?

Many of you were, and continue working from home, not able to go out as much, were asked to wear face masks, social distance, not gather with friends and family, etc. Students are schooling from home and yet we were blessed to have all of our first responders, like Police and Fire Departments, Doctors and Nurses, and other medical providers show up to service our needs. It has frankly been just remarkable witnessing professionals continue to, many at their own risk, serve the region as needed to get through this COVID fight. Thank you all for your service.

The town has also remained busy building the new Dean and Barbara White Community Center which will offer various programs for all ages. We are hopeful that it will be our ‘shining light’ at the end of the pandemic tunnel. We will be sending a town-wide newsletter in January explaining all of the details about the various programs, associated fees, resident benefits and league schedules. The center will have a fitness center with free weights and cardio workout machines, an elevated walking/jogging path (free to residents), 3 basketball courts that can convert into 6 volleyball courts, a Community Studio, two flex studios for club meetings, senior programs, exercise classes, and meetings, a complete Event Center for banquets, weddings, conventions, large group meetings, corporate events, and concerts. The outdoor artificial turf field will offer football, soccer, and other field sports. Watch for the next town newsletter that will provide photos, programs, and other useful information.

Serving all of you this year has been a real honor. I have talked to many residents and received numerous great ideas, many of which have been put in place to make Merrillville a better place to live. Others are being considered and I thank you for keeping in touch and sharing your thoughts. Please keep that going! We have been busy working and approving new developments coming into our town. When these projects are completed, they will be offering over 700 new high paying jobs in our area. Many of these developments are taking place in the Ameriplex at the Crossroads business park south of 93rd Avenue, east of Broadway and north of 101st Avenue. This area is exploding with interest and activity even as I write this post. We will also see new development off of Mississippi Street where we will be welcoming Aunt Millie’s Bakery and other potential new companies.

Yes, it has been quite a year. And I only hope and pray that we can all be stronger for it and welcome any new challenges that 2021 will bring us. Know that together we will get through them, no matter what they might be. I feel that our town is in a strong position to move forward in 2021. Thank you for your trust in me to serve you. It is something that I do not take lightly, and I look forward to meeting many of you once we can once again, go outside and talk to our neighbors. Reach out at any time.

Happy New Year to you and your family. 

-Rick Bella

Your Ward 5 Town Council Representative.

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