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Gov. Eric Holcomb on Friday visited Lake County with praise for the state, Northwest Indiana and Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.

"I'm so proud of Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson putting forth an impressive bid for Amazon. She put in a lot of time and effort. It will bear fruit," he told The Times Editorial Board.

The governor also addressed the Lake County Advancement Committee, a group of local business and political leaders, during a luncheon at Tiebel's Family Restaurant about his plans to modernize the state's economy.

He said improved state roads, bridges and a more skilled workforce are needed to attract new business, and the mayor's leadership is the kind he will need.

"I'd like to have her come on my next trade mission. Whatever Amazon decides, here, southern Indiana or some other state or another country, the work your community did, I can go sell that when I'm out, whether its Japan, Hungary or Paris. It's helpful for me to have that leadership," he said.

Freeman-Wilson said Friday, "It is an honor to have the governor think well of our team's efforts. I look forward to making the trip. Gary has a lot of assets I would like to market."

"What is so eye-opening to me was going to India and Tokyo and hearing the same thing, that they all have workforce issues," the governor said.

He said his trip to Japan's Toyota City (home to Toyota Motor Corp.) focused him on training children for future careers.

He said he noticed children touring in three Japanese factories he visited. "I was told it's not just for one day. All these fifth-grade kids go to a local business to get immersed in what is going on there. They are showing the children there is work close to their home and the skills needed at the fifth-grade level." 

He also praised Northwest Indiana's cooperation to win federal funds to expand the South Shore commuter line. "We need to align ourselves regionally in other parts of the state. You guys have a head start on that."

He said an upgraded commuter system may even draw Chicago residents. "When you factor in the low cost of living and the high quality of life, your dollar goes a lot further here than in Chicago. I want to attract that talent to live on this side and improve their quality of life."

Holcomb also took the opportunity to brag to the audience at Tiebel's about the financial stability of Indiana's state government.

"We are in strong shape here in Indiana. As for our neighbors to the north and the west, the same cannot be said," he said.

"We were able to fully fund a sustainable, paid-for roads and bridges program. We have the means going forward to take care of what we have and finish the projects we've started."

"We have a $1.8 billion (state budget) surplus. It puts us in a very strong position. All three major bond raters have rated us AAA. That puts us in very select company," Holcomb said, adding it acts as a reserve he could use to avoid cutting critical educational programs in case of an economic downtown.

Lake County Democratic Party Chairman James Wieser, who wasn't present for the governor's remarks, responded the state isn't all that rosy.

"It's always a positive when a state is financially sound, but the average wages in Indiana have remained stagnant for years, our infant mortality rate is the second worst in the country because we don't have proper health care programs and we've had tax increases to shore up our local schools and our roads," Wieser said.

"Yet we are bragging about storing up $1.8 billion in the bank. There is something wrong with that logic."

The governor charmed his luncheon audience with a statistic that he had made jump shots in all 92 of the Hoosier state's basketball-crazy counties.

The governor said, "You know you are in Indiana when you get the applause for making jump shots. It's good to be home."


Lake County reporter

Bill has reported in Lake County since 1972 after graduating from Indiana University. He has worked for The Times since 1997, covering the courts and local government during much of his tenure. Born and raised in New Albany, Ind., he is a native Hoosier.