A decade and a half ago, the Menomonee Valley in the heart of Milwaukee looked strikingly similar to the abandoned industrial landscapes that haunt Northwest Indiana cities.

Since then "the valley" has attracted $900 million in investment, 39 new companies, 5,000 new jobs and millions of visitors every year who want to enjoy its recreational opportunities.

"We wanted to keep the bar high," said Corey Zetts, associate director of Menomonee Valley Partners Inc. at Wednesday's Strong Cities, Strong Communities symposium at Gary's Genesis Center. "This much land in the heart of the city was a once in a lifetime opportunity."

Menomonee Valley Partners Inc., a private nonprofit, started planning work in 1999 for the valley in partnership with the City of Milwaukee Redevelopment Authority, according to Benjamin Timm, of the authority.

Combining the authority's taxing and land use powers with Menomonee Valley Partners' ability to bring together developers and community groups was the key to luring first-class employers, Timm said. Those included engineering firms, a Spanish wind-turbine maker and a popular pizza maker that were among companies that moved into the new Menomonee Valley Industrial Park at the valley's west end.

Motorcycle-maker Harley-Davidson built a museum at the valley's east end and a gleaming white suspension bridge built in 2002 at the 6th Street Viaduct provides a striking entrance to the valley.

The city shied away from a full-scale privatization of development of the 1,200-acre site mainly because even the most well-heeled master developer could not have dealt with the significant environmental challenges there, Timm said.

Timm and Zetts were the first to address Northwest Indiana community leaders at the Strong Cities, Strong Communities conference on its second day Wednesday. Region leaders are grappling with the same questions tackled in Milwaukee as they attempt to redevelop blighted industrial areas. Those issues include how much control to hand over to private developers and how much to reserve to city governments and nonprofits.

In January, Gary was one of seven cities picked for the Obama Administration's Strong Cities, Strong Communities program. The program partners federal agencies with cities to forge redevelopment initiatives. This week's two-day symposium at the Genesis Center is the local kickoff for the program.

Former Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission Chairman Geof Benson was among about 100 interested listeners as Timm and Zetts talked and showed slides. The idea of creating a nonprofit like Menomonee Valley Partners to build partnerships for local economic development is something Northwest Indiana's cities might want to attempt, Benson said.

"Some people say they already tried to do that here but it didn't come off," Benson said. "Well it's a new day. Try it again."

Nonprofits are more nimble and more adept at building partnerships than government units, as could be seen from the Menomonee Valley Partners example, he said.

Timms and Zetts said involving local residents in planning and decisions for the Menomonee Valley was a key to making the redevelopment project work.

"Our goal for all projects in the city of Milwaukee is to raise the investment profile and improve the lives of the people who live there," Timm said.

Local residents, who had suffered the most from the flight of industry from the valley in previous decades, brought forward ideas like youth soccer field and parks.

That resulted in the 24-acre Three Bridges Park, an extension of the Hank Aaron State Trail, and planning for the building of youth soccer fields.