CHICAGO | The mayors of Gary and Milwaukee pledged to join a partnership Wednesday that would develop an action plan for economic growth and improve collaboration within the tri-state Chicago region.
But for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, an important part of the action plan includes changing the perception of the area from the "Rust Belt" to "America's Fresh Coast." While retaining its manufacturing prowess, he said the region could build upon its water assets and use it as a beacon to attract residents and business investment.
"We have to define ourselves and we have to build from our strengths and we can do that and we should do that together," Barrett said to about 1,000 people who attended the Metropolitan Planning Council's annual luncheon at the Hyatt Regency Chicago hotel.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett were featured speakers at the event. They said they would work with the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce to implement recommendations made following an economic study of the region released earlier this year.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was expected to attend the luncheon, but was unable to attend because of a Chicago City Council meeting. Freeman-Wilson said she wasn't disappointed with Emanuel missing the event and that she's sympathetic to events not fitting into a schedule.
"As Mayor of Chicago I am committed to embracing opportunities for regional collaboration," Emanuel said, "and I will continue to work with fellow mayors from the Midwest to foster economic opportunity and job growth throughout the region."
In its assessment of the region's economic potential and product, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development said growth has been stunted in the area for several reasons including a lack of cooperation between state and local governments and the private sector.
Regardless of what challenges cities face on transportation, job training and economic development, Freeman-Wilson said officials have a responsibility to make sure they work toward making things better for people in their communities. In this case, she said that means work with people in other communities to improve conditions throughout the region.
"It's not whether you agree politically, it's whether you agree that you have a responsibility to the citizens you serve," Freeman-Wilson said.
The Metropolitan Planning Council is also working with The Times Media Co. in coordinating the Gary and Region Investment Project, which was launched in 2010 to bring together community leaders and residents to develop an investment strategy for regional economic development.