MERRILLVILLE | A Lake County local option income tax and a retooled South Shore commuter train that brings Chicago residents to the region were among suggestions made to improve Northwest Indiana.
Community leaders offered their opinions Friday during a luncheon meeting at Innsbrook Country Club as part of their service on the 2013 Times Editorial Advisory Board.
It was one of a series of community conversations Dennis Rittenmeyer, executive director of One Region, has been holding since the 2012 Quality of Life Indicators Report was made public in early October. The report was the fourth such publication since 2000.
One Region is a public service organization created by the merger of The Times' One Region, One Vision initiative and the Northwest Indiana Quality of Life Council.
Rittenmeyer said concerns sounded in earlier reports remain unresolved. They include the environment, education, the economy, transportation, health, public safety, housing and government.
He said travel- and tourism-related industries have been a positive in the last decade.
Speros Batistatos, president and CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, agreed.
"We are the region's second-largest industry. We bring in dollars earned elsewhere," Batistatos said.
Advisory board members agreed with Rittenmeyer that public transportation is broken.
Bob Alderman, deputy commissioner of the Indiana Department of Transportation, said, "You have some reasonably successful systems, and then no system, in another part of the county."
Batistatos suggested making the South Shore more than a commuter train for local residents.
"The South Shore train is a net exporter of human capital," he said.
"It also runs past parks and casinos. We need to leverage that into something that would revive Lake Street (in Gary's Miller section). We need to market it in Chicago to have them take the train here. We should have the most successful suburban train stop in the Chicago area," Batistatos said.
Pat Bankston, dean of Indiana University Northwest's College of Health and Human Services, said Northwest Indiana has to reform local government.
"Downstate, all they know about Northwest Indiana is that our politicians go to jail frequently. Students abhor coming to this area. Until we do something about cleaning this up, we will continue to suffer the stain," he said.
Dan Lowery, president of Calumet College of St. Joseph, said, "We have got great mayors, but no counterparts on the regional level. County government is a weak partner. We need a single county executive to form partnerships."
Some said Northwest Indiana needs to attract businesses and jobs with public and private investment.
Crown Point Mayor David Uran said a local option income tax on the personal incomes of Lake County residents and employees is a start.
"Local officials are afraid to pass a local option income tax, but that is part of the equation that went along with the property tax caps," Uran said.
The General Assembly imposed caps to limit the total amount of tax extracted from any parcel of real estate and shift the burden of supporting local government away from property. Legislators also have frozen Lake County's property tax levy, denying local government annual increases in its revenue for the last five years as punishment for county officials refusing to adopt a local income tax.
"We have got to make that move," Uran said.