Illiana, other projects will confront new NIRPC head

2012-11-17T13:00:00Z 2012-11-19T20:45:47Z Illiana, other projects will confront new NIRPC headBy Keith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com

It could be deja vu all over again for newly hired NIRPC Executive Director Tyson Warner.

Thirteen years ago, Warner was a 33-year-old Will County Planning Director when plans for the Interstate 355 Extension were announced. Opposition formed quickly with citizens charging the six-lane tollway would change forever their communities and way of life.

So Warner talked with opposition groups to find out about their concerns, as well as the larger values they shared.

"What they ended up saying at the end of the day, 'It's not so much about the tollway, it's the effect of the tollway on our way of life,'" Warner said. "That was huge getting to that point in Will County."

The now 46-year-old Warner will be facing similar challenges when he takes the helm at NIRPC in January, with the development of the Illiana Expressway one of the largest transportation projects on the group's radar.

"It's all about how do we make sure we have the conversation so concerns around the project can be brought to the table," Warner said about the proposed bi-state tollway.

Warner certainly isn't coming into the NIRPC job with rose-colored glasses. The NIRPC search committee's pick of Warner as finalist for the job became contentious in early October. An agenda item at the 53-member commission's Oct. 18 meeting calling for approval of his hiring was pulled at the last minute.

It took a week-and-a-half of consensus building before the commission at a meeting on Oct. 29 made Warner their unanimous choice for the job. But in the same resolution they called for reform of NIRPC's executive director selection process.

Warner will start his new job Jan. 1 under a two-year contract paying him $130,000 per year.

"It did point out you have challenges in getting 53 people in the same room to work together," Warner said. "That never will be easy."

However, he pointed out the fact the commission came together in the end to unanimously approve his hiring shows the strength of the organization.

That sense of pulling together will serve as a good model when it comes to future NIRPC projects, Warner said.

The organization has made a solid start on bringing citizens to the table on a wide array of initiatives with the its award-winning 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan, Warner said. Although it does not yet include the Illiana Expressway as a project, it provides a framework for evaluating the proposed road's impact on the region's quality of life.

The Comprehensive Regional Plan, developed under current executive director John Swanson, calls for redeveloping urban centers along Lake Michigan as well as creating "livable centers" throughout NIRPC's three-county footprint.

"Transportation didn't drive the plan forward per se," Swanson said recently. "It's more of a vision of what we would like our region to become by 2040."

Warner will be the fourth executive director in NIRPC's 47-year history when he succeeds Swanson in January. In March, Swanson, 67, announced he would be retiring from the organization at the end of the year.

One of the biggest challenges for Warner when coming on board will be to address the collapse of the Northwest Indiana Regional Bus Authority's easygo Lake Transit bus system, which served Hammond and five other communities, Swanson said.

Another will be continuing the effort to aid communities across the region that are struggling financially because of tax caps and the recession.

The Comprehensive Regional Plan provides prescriptions for those challenges and others, so turning the plan into reality will be job No. 1 when he gets on board in January, Warner said. Developing a "brand identity" for the region will be another.

"It's something when people say 'This is not just some place you drive through on the way to Michigan, but some place you want to spend time and some money in,'" he said.

The Indiana Dunes is probably what the region is best known for nationally, but Northwest Indiana's rich manufacturing past could also be leveraged to create a unique, recognizable identity for the region.

Places such as Valparaiso, Chesterton and Michigan City already have developed town centers where people want to dwell, shop and meet, Warner said. Concepts employed in those places should be quickly implemented in others.

"When something is going really well, that same lesson can be shared in a way that help the whole region," he said.

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