MERRILLVILLE | Former Chicago Mayor Richard Daley told 650 Northwest Indiana residents the future holds great promise for America if people look outward for opportunities and to themselves for innovation.
"We've helped the world, now we can help ourselves," Daley said at the 2013 One Region annual luncheon Wednesday. "We have to view the world as an asset and not an enemy."
With the federal government gridlocked by bureaucracy, states and communities have to become the innovators, he told the packed ballroom at the Radisson Hotel at Star Plaza. He said Northwest Indiana already is way ahead with efforts like One Region.
"Believe me, this type of regional cooperation is not typical in our nation," he said. "This is really a unique and different enterprise."
Daley's singling out of the region for praise was tempered by remarks by U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, before lunch.
The 1st District U.S. representative repeated a set of sobering statistics, including the population loss and accelerating graying of Lake County. He compared it to the tale of the Pied Piper taking away all the children of Hamelin.
He used that anecdote to continue to push for funding the extension of the South Shore commuter rail line, saying this is the year to get it done after decades of talk.
"We will resolve the funding issue by March 31, 2014, and we will build a bus and train system and bring our children home," Visclosky said.
But Visclosky was only warming up the crowd for Daley's star turn after lunch, with the ex-mayor of America's third-largest city drawing standing ovations from the packed ballroom before and after he spoke.
One Region was founded in 2008 by former Times Media Co. Publisher Bill Masterson and now is co-chaired by Times Publisher Chris White. It has 16 initiatives underway, including the Mayors' Roundtable, the Chamber of Commerce Coalition and the Health Advisory Council.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, instrumental in drawing Daley to the luncheon, said Chicago's longest-serving mayor took her under his wing just after she won the Democratic nod for Gary mayor in 2011.
"He is someone who is equally comfortable in China or the South Side of Chicago and, yes, Northwest Indiana," Freeman-Wilson told the crowd. "He is one of the finest mayors I know."
Daley has forged bonds with the region since spearheading the bistate regional airport compact in the mid-1990s. He made it clear he will be sticking around. That includes Saturday, when he will be in Gary pitching in on a neighborhood cleanup.
"This is how we can bring change to our communities and make them better," Daley said.
Daley spoke about what he has been doing since choosing not to run for another term in 2011. This includes chairing the Global Cities Initiative for J.P. Morgan Chase, serving on the board of the Coca-Cola Co. and teaching as a senior fellow in urban policy at the University of Chicago.
He told the audience a team of graduate students from the university soon will complete a survey of 10,000 abandoned buildings in Gary, along with developing recommendations on what can be done with them.
Before the luncheon, Daley met with region mayors to tell them how he worked to change Chicago into an international city as well as getting their ideas for the future.
"He opened our eyes on many things and transit for one," said Lake Station Mayor Keith Soderquist. "We are really behind the eight-ball on that. If we don't invest, people will continue to move away."