Chelsea Schneider, Innovations Content Manager, Aim
Whiting is a city that’s made a name for itself by embracing its one-of-a-kind quirks.
Every summer, thousands of twirling babushkas and revelers fill the streets of downtown for a festival in honor of the city’s favorite dumpling – the pierogi. Now, the city is once again embracing the unconventional. This time with a museum. But not any run-of-the-mill museum.
In December, the city celebrated the opening of its new Mascot Hall of Fame. The interactive children’s museum is a space dedicated to commemorating the best of the best of sporting mascots.
The museum packed full of colorful and zany exhibits, like the “Department of Phuzzical Education” where kiddos can shoot hoops while their parents enjoy their own penalty box with comfy chairs, is an experience one can only find in Whiting. The museum, Whiting Mayor Joe Stahura said, is expected to serve as a tourism draw for the Northwest Indiana community on the shores of Lake Michigan.
“Our strategy from the start was to put tourism-related amenities in our community, so that we can attract people outside of our community to support our business district,” Stahura said.
As they searched for the right fit, Whiting leaders stumbled across an idea that Stahura said “was so crazy” he knew it would work for the city. His staff found a website touting a Mascot Hall of Fame, started by the man behind the original Phillie Phanatic, the fuzzy, green bird who is the official mascot of the Philadelphia Phillies.
“Mascots are wacky. They’re fun. Pieorgi Fest is wacky. They’re fun,” Stahura said. “It’s the perfect marriage.”
Every year the Hall of Fame’s founder would gather thousands of people in Downtown Philadelphia to hold an induction ceremony for mascots. Stahura’s team partnered with the founder to turn his idea into a full-blown 25,000-square-foot, three-story museum.
“We used to joke internally, ‘Hey maybe someday someone will call us and say build the Mascot Hall of Fame here,’ and that’s what happened,” said David Raymond, the former mascot who founded the Mascot Hall of Fame. “When people say, ‘Why Whiting’ the first thing I say is they had the vision to call us. They felt it fit the brand of their city.”
To carry out the vision, the city used the local economic development tool of tax-increment financing to construct the building.
“If it wasn’t for TIF, it never would have occurred,” Stahura said. “(The museum) is going to play an enormous role in downtown growth…People just like to see what’s going on in Whiting. People are coming here because we are doing things differently. This building has caused an amazing amount of stir.”
The plan is to induct mascots into the Hall of Fame each year. Currently, there are 20 mascots from college and professional sports teams who have earned the honor. Among the first inductees were the San Diego Chicken, Phoenix Gorilla and the Phillie Phanatic. The mascots broke ground for the field by not merely being a fun photo opportunity, but by actually becoming involved in the game and serving as entertainment. New inductees are chosen for the role they play within their sporting organization and community, Raymond said.
Along with the official Hall of Fame, the museum features interactive exhibits that focus on S.T.E.A.M (science, technology, engineering, art and math) education. On a recent weekday, Stahura, clad in a polka dot blazer, walked around the museum greeting school groups working their way through the “Science of Silliness Lab” and the “Department of Furry Arts.”
As mayor of the city that’s now all things mascots, Stahura said he probably shouldn’t pick his favorite one. But if he had to pick, it would be Reggie, the mascot of the Mascot Hall of Fame.
“He’s the purple party dude,” Stahura said. “Reggie is our guy.”
If you go
What: Mascot Hall of Fame, or MHOF
Where: 1851 Front St., Whiting
Details: Admission is $12, and free for children under the age of 2; Hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday.