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GARY — Determining what big regional issue Indiana University Northwest and the community can work together on was the theme Tuesday of the spring 2018 meeting meeting of the Chancellor's Commission for Community Engagement at the campus.

Eight panelists spoke from the perspectives of their professional experience and the regional sectors they represent and then engaged with one another and the audience on significant issues the university and community might tackle together.

Panelists helped attendees prioritize the eight topics they presented by having them vote electronically.

The topic voted No. 1 was how the university can help attract private and investment capital to Gary and the surrounding communities.

It was presented by panelist Lorri Feldt, regional director of the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Center, who said the issue is a lack or a need for private capital for small businesses. She said the university could help using its school of business as a convener, or through marketing to private investors in attracting that money to the Region. 

"The challenge is making the case," she said. "Investors won't place their money unless there is a good reason to do so."

Regional connectivity being the key to growing the economy of Northwest Indiana was the second-most popular topic, presented by Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority President and CEO Bill Hanna.

"It is paramount to solve other problems being talked about," he said. 

Hanna touted the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District's West Lake Corridor expansion and double tracking project. He called on the community and university to help with those projects to give us "a fair shot at the same job opportunities that exist in Chicago that the northwest suburbs have been enjoying for decades." 

The other topic most voted on was presented by panelist state Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Merrillville, which is to establish programs that help empower residents to become engaged in the policies that affect our lives at all levels — an initiative that could teach residents effective advocacy, policy-making and grassroots organizing. 

Other topics, which panelists all agreed were just as important, covered education and business including addressing the teaching shortage and creating small-business hubs. IU Northwest Chancellor William J. Lowe said the discussion acted as a pivot — a way for the university to build up its strategic priorities to be engaged in the community.

"This is an important first step for us," he said. "It has given us a lot to think about. We will look to see where that initial focus might be and to build on the discussion that happened today." 

Panelists also included Legacy Foundation President Carolyn Saxton; Lake Ridge schools Superintendent Sharon Johnson-Shirley; Urban League of NWI President and CEO Vanessa Allen-McCloud; Iris Sanchez, IU Northwest graduate student and director of student life at Ivy Tech Community College; and Gabriela Jaimes, undergraduate and president, Student Government Association, IU Northwest.

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Lake County reporter

Rob covers urban affairs and other matters in Crown Point, St. John, Winfield and beyond. Previously he covered Valparaiso, Hammond, Gary and East Chicago. He's also written for various magazines and pens a culture blog for The Times.