When John Swanson was hired as executive director of the Northwestern Indiana Planning Commission in 2004, many people still said "not-in-my-backyard" when it came to hike and bike trails.
Today, most communities are clambering for more, seeking to build on the 100 miles of trails that now crisscross the region.
Swanson said those trails are just a small piece of the region's overall transportation puzzle, but the changing attitude illustrates what can happen when 41 communities and other branches of government strive to work together.
"I'm really proud the way this commission has come together," Swanson said on a recent morning at NIRPC headquarters in Portage. "They have really seen the value of coming together and working across county and community lines."
Early last year, Swanson, 67, announced he would retire from his post at the end of the year. On Jan. 1, he was replaced as executive director by Ty Warner, a former Will County planning director.
A pivotal time
When Swanson was hired as NIRPC executive director in 2004, he became just the third person to hold the post in the agency's then 39-year history. It was a pivotal time in both NIRPC and the region's history.
The year before, the Indiana General Assembly passed legislation that basically transformed NIRPC from strictly a transportation planning agency to a regional council of governments. The commission board was expanded to 53 members representing all 41 cities and towns in Lake, LaPorte and Porter counties.
In addition to serving as a council of governments, NIRPC continues to carry out its original mission as a federally-established Metropolitan Planning Organization, approving the disbursements of hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state transportation funds.
Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said he has heard both the good and the bad about NIRPC in his eight years on the board and as chairman in 2011.
"It's like the United Nations," he said. "Some people like the United Nations and some just don't."
But there's no doubt Swanson moved the group forward in his eight years at the helm, with the 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan passed by the NIRPC board in 2011 being the centerpiece of his achievements, McDermott said.
The plan will guide NIRPC and the region as it wrestles with weighty projects like the extension of the South Shore commuter railroad, lakefront development and possibly the building of the Illiana Expressway.
Last week, NIRPC received what might be the highest possible validation of its 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan when the American Planning Association announced it was the winner of its 2013 Daniel Burnham Award.
Strictly speaking, NIRPC was only required to include transportation in the plan, said Geof Benson, NIRPC chairman for 2012 and Beverly Shores Town Council President. But the 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan "zoomed out" to look at what drives transportation and what people need, Benson said.
"I think John shed new light on NIRPC's purpose and brought us up to a whole new level," Benson said.
Swanson describes the creation of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority one year after he came on board at NIRPC as another game changer for the region. The RDA took a lead role in NIRPC projects such as lakefront development, the South Shore commuter railroad, and regional bus service.
That association with the RDA also led to the project that Swanson in hindsight would most want to do over.
That was the takeover and expansion of Hammond transit by the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority, which began with so much promise as bus ridership soared. But within two years, with no local government stepping forward to fund it, the effort collapsed, resulting in a cessation of bus service for Hammond residents in the summer of 2012.
"When that bus service shut down on June 30, it was very painful to watch," Swanson said. "That was a real setback."
He believes the lack of sustainable funding was the key to the RBA's collapse. He also remains hopeful the efforts of local elected officials like Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson may turn the situation around.
Swanson said the RBA experience has not defeated the can-do attitude of his agency and its member communities, with its 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan providing a blueprint for sustainable development in all three counties.
"Yes, we are a planning commission," Swanson said. "But I like to say we are a planning and doing commission."