Innovation key to region's future, leaders say

2014-04-03T14:35:00Z 2014-05-16T17:17:08Z Innovation key to region's future, leaders sayJoseph S. Pete joseph.pete@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com

HAMMOND| In a decade, Northwest Indiana could have a lakefront lined with a high-rises, a convention center and a restaurant with sweeping views.

The Calumet Region could have improved transportation infrastructure, more advanced manufacturing, top-notch job training programs and a highly skilled workforce.

Such visions were laid out Thursday by community leaders at "NWI by 2024: The Imperative for Innovation over the Next 10 Years" at The Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation on the Purdue University Calumet campus. Ivy Tech's Gerald I. Lamkin Innovation and Entrepreneurship Center and the The Society of Innovators of Northwest Indiana staged the annual luncheon in order to encourage Northwest Indiana leaders to embrace more innovation.

"We chose not to look back over the past decade, but to look ahead to making our region a region of innovation," said O'Merrial Butchee, director of the Ivy Tech's innovation center.

Eight speakers discussed how to build a culture of innovation in Northwest Indiana over the next 10 years.

Northwest Indiana peaked economically in 1978, when the average wage was 125 percent of the national average, said Donald Babcock, director of economic development for NIPSCO. Manufacturing contracted, and the steel industry lost thousands of jobs that paid around $60,000 a year. 

Region residents now make 89 percent of the national average. 

But the region has tremendous assets it can build upon, including ArcelorMittal's global research and development center in East Chicago, the $4 billion upgrade the BP Whiting Refinery, and the recent addition to Hobart's Northwind Crossings Industrial Park.

"Managing disappointment – it doesn't have to be that way," Babcock said. "We have great assets and great people, and it's imperative we share the innovative things happening in our economy to attract more to Northwest Indiana."

Innovation is already taking place. The Center for Innovation through Visualization and Simulation, for instance, has used state-of-the-art virtual reality simulations to help 80 different organizations, and save companies $30 million, founding director Chenn Zhou said.

The city of Whiting has innovated by building and selling 14 new houses on two blocks, after developers balked at building new homes in an older section of the 130-year-old city, Mayor Joseph Stahura said. Whiting also partnered with Hammond to jointly market their attractions, and has saved money by buying asphalt and other supplies with the much larger neighboring city.  

Not every new government idea has worked, such as when Highland and Munster unsuccessfully tried to merge their fire departments, but innovation requires risk, Stahura said.

Speakers also said innovation requires bold vision. 

"For Northwest Indiana to be successful, we have to look at ourselves not as Northwest Indiana but as the Crossroads of America," said Stewart McMillan, CEO and President of Task Force Tips. "It's a global economy, and we need to think globally, not regionally."

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