Six years ago, unprecedented politicking by Northwest Indiana's congressman, Indiana's governor, state legislators and even former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley produced the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.
Two weeks after the legislation creating the RDA was passed, Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels came to Gary/Chicago International Airport with bill and pen in hand to tell an enthusiastic crowd of business and community leaders: "I'm signing a lot of important bills these days, but if I could only sign one, it would be this one."
The RDA was launched in fall 2005 with all the buzz and excitement of an Internet IPO. Region leaders were tripping over each other to roundly praise what they called "the best opportunity since steel" had come to the region 100 years before.
Today, with almost $90 million spent to date on a dozen major projects, verdicts on the RDA are more mixed. Still, most of its original boosters remain firmly behind the seven-member regional development group.
"I would describe their success as phenomenal," said U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, a Merrillville Democrat. "They are the best game in town in Northwest Indiana in 2011."
Almost 60 percent of the RDA money already committed by vote of the seven-member board -- some $118.2 million -- is going to six lakefront projects that will be the key links in the Marquette Greenway plan, which Visclosky first proposed more than two decades ago.
People already are using the completed Portage Lakefront Park and Riverwalk in the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, as well as an amphitheater overlooking Wolf Lake in Hammond. More work is under way at the Hammond lake as well as at Whiting Lakefront Park, Marquette Park in Gary, the East Chicago lakefront and the Gateway to the Indiana Dunes in Porter.
So far, the RDA has stuck mainly to what it likes to call the "four corners" of its legislative mandate: commuter rail, the Gary airport, lakefront development and regional buses.
In addition to the $118.2 million in RDA money committed to lakefront projects, another $50.3 million has been committed to expanding the Gary airport and $11.8 million to the Regional Bus Authority, according to figures supplied by the RDA and contained in project grant requests. Money already spent out of those commitments totals $63.4 million, with about $23.7 million spent on other projects.
The money it spends comes from the RDA communities' quarterly dues, which amount to $3.5 million yearly in casino money each from Hammond, East Chicago, Gary and Lake County, along with $3.5 million more from an economic development income tax in Porter County. The state of Indiana also kicks in $10 million per year from the Indiana Toll Road lease.
Detractors and criticism
That doesn't mean everyone agrees with everything the RDA has done. The Porter County Council liked it least of all, filing a lawsuit two years ago to withdraw from the organization.
The courts since have ruled that the 2005 law establishing the RDA mandates Porter County's membership. The council now is appealing to the Indiana Supreme Court.
Porter County Council at-large member Laura Blaney said she and other council members are pleased with the work being done by the RDA representative they appointed last year, hotel developer Jeff Good. She said council members now are waiting to see if the state Supreme Court will hear their appeal to withdraw from the RDA before deciding on next steps.
She said her opposition to joining with Lake County for development originally was based on the record of Lake County politicians, which could be described as spotty at best when it comes to accountability.
"From a business standpoint, I wouldn't go into business with someone that has the kind of record Lake County has, so I couldn't ask Porter County's citizens to join up with them either," Blaney said.
Others are engaging in what they call "appropriate and respectful" disagreements over the RDA's priorities.
The South Shore Convention & Visitors Authority, though a "stalwart supporter" of the RDA, nonetheless contends the organization is ignoring its fifth legislative mandate -- which is economic development projects, according to authority CEO Speros Batistatos. Under that mandate, the authority wants the RDA to support its proposal for a convention center.
"The fact of the matter is the RDA was charged with five major projects," Batistatos said. "They have a pentagon of boundaries, but they have ignored the fifth one."
The South Shore Convention & Visitors Authority also has vigorously fought any proposal for a food and beverage sales tax to fund regional bus service. It is in the power of the Lake County Council to implement the tax; but under the RDA statute, the development group gets to decide how it is spent.
Despite opposition from the Porter County Council and criticisms such as those leveled by Batistatos, the RDA six years after its creation continues to enjoy widespread support in the Northwest Indiana business community and among mayors.
Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas presides over a city that has had relatively little direct investment by the RDA, except for the $1.8 million that established its ChicaGo Dash Express bus service to the Loop. But he remains an unshakable supporter of the organization's work.
"I really feel when you look at where we've been as a region, often divided and not using our resources to secure progress, I think they have done good work," Costas said.
Five projects funded by the RDA recently were selected by the internationally recognized Urban Land Institute's Chicago chapter as "game-changing" infrastructure projects for the Chicago region. Those were the Hammond, Whiting, East Chicago and Gary lakefront projects as well as the Gary/Chicago International Airport expansion.
The RDA has been crucial in getting the Gary airport expansion back on track, and an airport strategic business plan partially funded by the RDA will be the key to growing business there, according to Mark Maassel, CEO of the Northwest Indiana Forum, a private economic development group that counts leading region companies among its membership.
"The RDA is just a great example of how government can invest in things that will spur economic development," Maassel said.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. says it is not a matter of how much more time lakefront park projects would have taken without the RDA; he contends most never would have happened at all without the creation of the regional development group.
"It is one decision the governor made that I really agree with," said McDermott, who is Lake County Democratic chairman and a rising star in the state Democratic Party. "It forced everyone to think regionally."