Local economic developers say they are working with up to 10 companies that may open or expand operations in Northwest Indiana, with jobs announcements expected sooner rather than later.

"I am sure we will have more announcements coming up in the near future," NIPSCO Economic Development Director Don Babcock recently predicted.

That prediction comes amid increasing optimism among the region's key development agencies following on a 2011 that was the best in at least a decade when it came to closing deals for new company operations in Northwest Indiana.

Neither Babcock, RDA Executive Director Bill Hanna nor Northwest Indiana Forum Chief Mark Maassel would name any of the prospects, adhering to the hush-hush confidentiality pledges surrounding such deals.

But at a July 3 meeting of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, Hanna told his directors they may have to reshape their economic development incentives due to the large number of prospects that may be ready to close deals.

"It's not just the number of prospects," Hanna said in a subsequent interview. "It's the quality of them. We are seeing established, quality companies looking at the region."

The rush of deals, if it materializes, comes as NIPSCO is celebrating its 100th anniversary and making the case it has been intertwined with economic development in the region for all that time.

"Our work is to try to create more value for the company, while creating more value in the region and the state," Babcock said during an extensive interview at NIPSCO headquarters in Merrillville.

Babcock gives credit to "game-changing" efforts by the RDA, the Northwest Indiana Forum and the state of Indiana for the recent development wins and others in the pipeline. He also emphasizes the key role of local communities, which in most cases provide some of the most critical infrastructure for projects, as well as important tax incentives.

The main wins last year all were announced in a two-month span during the summer. Those were Canadian National Railway's plan to expand Kirk Yard and add 251 jobs in Gary; Modern Forge's pledge to move its Harvey, manufacturing facility and 250 jobs to Merrillville; and solar component-maker Fronius's announcement it will open a manufacturing facility in Portage employing up to 500 by 2016.

Canadian National's plans were recently scaled back, but the railroad says it will still add 119 jobs at Kirk Yard and new investment there will be a robust $141 million.

NIPSCO aided both the Canadian National expansion and the Modern Forge move by providing a five-year economic development rate for electricity, basically a discount tied to power usage. The RDA pledged $4 million for infrastructure improvements at Kirk Yard and $2 million for the Modern Forge deal.

Despite those successes, the area will definitely need more if it wants to recover from the recession and attain the kind of diversified economy that is the dream of economic developers.

Lake, Porter, Jasper and Newton counties lost a combined 18,300 jobs from the beginning of the recession in December 2007 until its end in June 2009, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Total employment in the region now stands at 264,400, which is still about 900 jobs less than in June 2009.

But economic development leaders across the region are confident they are on the right track after decades of floundering about for a consolidated, region-wide development push.

"Last year was better," Maassel said. "And this year is even better."

As important as short-term and one-time economic incentives are for sealing deals, the greatest incentive for most companies remains Indiana's superior business climate and lower tax rates, Maassel said.

In particular, Maassel and others point to the elimination of Indiana's inventory tax and the implementation of property tax caps as key factors when companies calculate the long-term benefits of locating in Indiana.

"The greatest incentive Indiana offers is that you can operate you business here for many years into the future," Maassel said.