Region leaders' retreat helps frame top 10 priorities

2013-10-13T00:00:00Z 2013-12-09T09:28:28Z Region leaders' retreat helps frame top 10 prioritiesMarc Chase marc.chase@nwi.com, (219) 662-5330 nwitimes.com
October 13, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Community leaders dispelled a long-held perception that consensus on major public policy issues is not attainable in Northwest Indiana, organizers of the recent event said.

The gathering of 85 political, business, social and education leaders from Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties identified 10 of the region's most pressing issues based on the group's discussions and voting by participants.

One Region, a group that seeks to increase the quality of life in Northwest Indiana, organized the six-hour Oct. 3 retreat.

The gathering began with smaller discussion groups and then voting by the overall group, leading to 10 major region priorities and -- ultimately -- eight final discussion groups.

Topping the list by consensus of nearly one in four of the participants were the need to advocate and fund early education and to secure continuing funding for the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

Improving the reality and perception of the region's public safety and expanding the South Shore commuter rail lines also ranked high on the list.

The RDA, a vehicle for providing funding to regional development and transportation projects, was born in 2005 with great fanfare for region investments.

Retreat facilitator Dan Lowery, president of Calumet College of St. Joseph, said the gathering sought to capture some of the excitement and consensus that led to the legislative creation of the RDA eight years ago.

"A lot of tremendous region work was done back then, but there has been a bit of a lull in recent years," Lowery said. "We wanted to recapture some of the energy from a few years ago."

Lowery said one of the greatest benefits to the retreat earlier this month was the ability of region leaders to create a list showing a consensus, something state leaders often feel is lacking in Northwest Indiana.

Some issues -- sometimes thought of as key in the region -- are conspicuously absent from the retreat's list.

Lowery and One Region Executive Director Dennis Rittenmeyer said they appreciated how some participants handled their issues not making the list.

Neither culture nor environment made it into the top 10 of major issues, even though tourism officials and environmental activists were in attendance.

Speros Batistatos, president and CEO of the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority, said he wasn't disappointed by culture and tourism not making it into the top 10.

"We have such a desperate need for certain things -- including infrastructure needs -- that it is understandable the focus would be on those obvious issues," Batistatos said. "People can't get to those great tourism destinations without solid roads and infrastructure.

"Anytime we can put 100 community leaders in a room and come to a loose consensus on what the most important issues are, it's a step in the right direction for the region."

Lowery added the absence of some issues from the list -- such as a regional trauma hospital or environmental improvements -- could mean groups supporting those agendas need to do a better job of educating the public.

Lowery also said he hopes the participation of 10 of the region's Indiana legislators at the event will ensure the identified priorities help frame discussions in Indianapolis.

Rep. Charlie Brown, D-Gary, said the retreat helped break down the imaginary borders that exist between Northwest Indiana communities and counties, revealing common ground for growth and improvement.

"Without a doubt," Brown said when asked if the event would help him frame issues to pursue at the Indiana Statehouse. "The issues at this meeting were brought forth by our constituents, who are our eyes and ears in the community.

"I hope this event can become an annual affair."

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