A coalition of churches wants the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority to ensure that almost a third of all construction jobs on its projects go to people from Northwest Indiana's neediest communities.
About 20 members of the Northwest Indiana Federation showed up at Tuesday's RDA meeting to encourage the agency to sign an agreement reserving 30 percent of jobs on projects for people living in neighborhoods hard hit by unemployment and poverty.
"We believe what is happening through the RDA is the essence of hope for Northwest Indiana," Federation President Rev. Dwight Gardner said. "But we can't be left on the other side of the fence, watching opportunity go before us and not get a ticket on that train."
The RDA has committed about $205 million to projects ranging from the Gary/Chicago International Airport expansion to lakefront parks. Many of those projects are in needy communities, but it doesn't seem the jobs are going to people who live there, Gardner said.
The RDA board took a step toward figuring out exactly who is getting the thousands of construction jobs created by its projects when it voted 7-0 Tuesday to require all grant recipients to provide a Buy Indiana/Buy Northwest Indiana Contractor report. It requires all contractors to report the number of workers on a project who are from Lake and Porter counties.
In April, the RDA voted to remove requirements that grant recipients adhere to local ordinances on hiring preferences. At the same time, the RDA voted to develop its Buy Indiana/Buy Northwest Indiana policy.
"The underlying principle is everyone from the two-county area should be given an opportunity," RDA Executive Director Bill Hanna said in comments after the meeting. "Our policy is to provide an advantage for everyone locally in the two-county area."
The RDA has been meeting with the Northwest Indiana Federation about its concerns and will meet with the group soon on its proposed community benefits agreement, Hanna said.
The RDA is funded by $3.5 million in annual contributions of casino development funds from each of the cities of Hammond, East Chicago and Gary, and Lake County. Another $3.5 million comes from a local income tax in Porter County. The state kicks in $10 million more per year from Indiana Toll Road lease proceeds.
Federation Executive Director Rev. Cheryl Rivera said it might surprise some people when it comes to who would qualify for the training and work program proposed by the federation. She said in one month this year, the city of Hobart had the second highest unemployment rate in Northwest Indiana.
"This is not about black or white," Rivera said. "We want to know who is being hired, who is benefiting, from the millions of dollars being spent right now at the ground level."