MERRILLVILLE | Indiana Chamber of Commerce officials met with a Northwest Indiana business crowd Friday to tout progress made on a long-range economic development plan and to discuss next steps, including a legislative push to let employees factor smoking into hiring decisions and health insurance premiums.
More than 30 business and community leaders took part in the forum at Gamba Ristorante in Merrillville on Indiana Vision 2025, an action plan aimed at creating a more educated workforce, a more attractive business climate, better infrastructure and an entrepreneurial culture. The chamber already has accomplished several of the goals outlined on the two-year-old plan, such as eliminating the state's inheritance tax and nabbing a top five ranking for regulatory climate.
"First and foremost is outstanding talent, getting our children and adults already in the workforce the skills they need to maximize their individual potential to help our businesses grow and compete in the international marketplace, as well as provide jobs and opportunities for families," said Kevin Brinegar, president and CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce. "We've already established – over the last 12 to 15 years in particular – a very strong, competitive business climate."
A survey of chamber members determined Northwest Indiana's primary challenges revolve around educational attainment, transportation infrastructure, community leadership, regional identity, job creation, racial diversity and cohesive planning. Business leaders, for instance, suggested Northwest Indiana should be marketed as a dynamic brand. Opportunities they identified for the region included location, rail, the underused Gary/Chicago International Airport and natural resources such as Lake Michigan.
"For real progress to take place, those at the local and regional levels also need to take ownership of Indiana Vision 2025 when it is consistent with their region's objectives and efforts," said Northwest Indiana Forum board chairwoman Jill Ritchie.
The chamber is continuing to work toward goals, including reducing smoking rates by persuading state lawmakers to repeal a 1991 "Smokers' Bill of Rights" that prevents Indiana employees from charging workers higher premiums for health insurance or refusing to hire them.
"It currently gives smokers the same employment law rights as other – we think more important factors – race, religion, gender and ethnicity," Brinegar said. "If we're really going to get serious about reducing smoking rates and positively impacting rising health care costs, we've got to put more tools in the hands of employers. The law on the books really hamstrings employers in their ability to distinguish and discourage this unhealthy behavior in the workplace."