It is an honor to add my voice to others who care as much about Northwest Indiana as I do.
There are some who reject the concept of a regional community and point to the political dilution that has accompanied Unigov in Indianapolis as their best evidence. There is no question that we must protect the assets that belong to individual communities, but we also can leverage them for the greater good.
I love my hometown of Gary, but I understand clearly the future of my city and the larger Northwest Indiana community are inextricably linked. Below, I have suggested ways that we can all contribute to the greater good of our community.
We must intentionally confront the challenge racism presents in our region with the energy and commitment that we have invested in so many other important endeavors.
We have garnered passion about the extension of the South Shore Line, ethics in government, the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority and many other important endeavors. But the factor that has prevented us from being our best selves always takes a back seat.
Whenever racism rears its ugly head, we want to attribute a decision or action motivated by racism to some other rational factor because to confront the actual cause would require us to engage in self-examination in a way that makes everyone uncomfortable.
Race has long been the “elephant in the room” for this region. The best evidence of this problem are the daily online comments to local news articles that allow anonymity where people make racial comments and references that are better left to the 1950s.
Ways to address this issue are through the development of innovative curricula in our schools, through the use of study circles first introduced by the Race Relations Council and through the willingness of those who know better to speak up whenever appropriate.
If we refuse to confront the scourge of racism, individual cities and towns may prosper, but we will never prosper as a regional community.
Develop inclusive culture
We must move away from a culture of condemnation toward a culture of inclusion. Too often we focus on elements and characteristics that divide us rather than promoting the common goals that unite us.
The overwhelming majority of residents want to lead law-abiding lives and provide our children or those we care about with better opportunities than we had.
If we devote our time and energy to these endeavors, we would have little time to attempt to ostracize and oppress each other because of our race, gender, sex, sexual orientation, religion or association. This country was built on the premise that we all have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Boost standard of living for all
All of our children should have a sense of entitlement. Adults who have power and influence must commit themselves to ensuring that all children have quality education, health care, housing and cultural and recreational opportunities. Your birthright should not be a lottery ticket that determines whether you have basic resources to achieve greatness.
While I acknowledge that to ensure this entitlement we will be required to use more resources in some areas, our willingness to do so will ultimately reduce the number of impoverished communities This will, in turn, reduce the need for disproportionate resources in Northwest Indiana to communities like Gary, Hammond, East Chicago and Lake Station where poverty exists. We all gain by increasing the standard of living for children in Northwest Indiana.
Foster spirit of volunteerism
We must promote a culture of volunteerism. We have started to require service hours and service learning in many schools, but we must also encourage volunteerism among adults.
Many Northwest Indiana communities have limited resources, but citizens can work together to improve the appearance of their respective communities. Volunteers also help young people achieve dreams and senior citizens achieve a sense of security. This need includes our corporate community as well.
So often, corporate leaders focus on their contribution to taxes or donations and forget about how valuable the time of individual employees can be. Corporate leaders from NIPSCO, Peoples Bank, The Times Media Company, Centier, Majestic and Horseshoe casinos, Indiana University, Ivy Tech and others have created a culture of volunteerism that has had a positive impact on communities throughout Northwest Indiana.
The Boys & Girls Club in Gary and the American Heart Association have benefited greatly from corporate volunteerism. If corporations and individuals in Northwest Indiana all embraced volunteerism, our communities would improve exponentially.
Regional growth benefits all
There must be universal support for economic development opportunities in the region. Whether it is the Gary/Chicago International Airport public/private partnership and land-based gaming in Gary, the port in East Chicago, investments in the lakefront in Whiting and Portage, water projects in Hammond, or the Illiana Expressway, we must acknowledge the value that comes from supporting the growth of neighboring communities.
Each community has the ability to grow by supporting the other. Our region is small enough that residents can live in one community and work in another. This spirit also lends itself to regional commerce. It is not a matter of control or competition, but cooperation.
Mary McLeod Bethune said: “If I touch you with one finger, you may not even notice me; if I touch with two or three, you may begin to feel me; but if I assemble fingers into a fist, I can strike a mighty blow.”
Our communities represent individual fingers. By joining together we can strike a mighty blow. It does not in any way deny the unique characteristics of each community; it just reminds us there is undeniable strength in numbers.
Some may view these suggestions as idealistic or naive. Others might believe them to promote socialism in a world that values capitalism. I would argue the ideas outlined above, if considered and implemented with care and introspection, have the ability to move us toward a more improved Northwest Indiana.
The term “Regionalism” can, and often does, provoke a variety of emotional responses from residents of Northwest Indiana. We are a region of communities breathtakingly diverse and often politically and socially balkanized. Thus, our ability to form a unified vision for Northwest Indiana, let alone implement such a vision, has been difficult.
We tend to focus only on our own communities, seeing them as islands unto themselves. Yes, we are all residents of one city, town or county, but we are also all residents of one distinct geographic and economic region. The successes or failures of that region affect all of us more than we like to admit.
While each community should strive to be its best, it should also realize that its community is impacted by the overall performance and reputation of our entire region. Indeed, many goals, such as economic development, water quality, transportation, tourism and education have significant regional components and we can only succeed if we succeed together as a region.
I believe that in the last decade there has been notable progress in developing a more regional approach to planning and investment. The formation of the Regional Development Authority, the One Region initiative of The Times, and the efforts by U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky as the implicit mayor of Northwest Indiana have all furthered the concept of Regionalism. These efforts, among others, are beginning to change the look and future of Northwest Indiana. They must continue and accelerate if we are to survive and thrive in fiercely competitive national and global economies.
All of my grandparents immigrated to Northwest Indiana from Greece and found the opportunity they yearned for. I grew up on Gary’s west side, attended middle school and high school in Valparaiso and have owned and operated small businesses in both Lake and Porter counties most of my adult life. I, like many others, long for the renaissance of our region. While it will look much different from the Steel Zenith of the 1950s, it awaits our action. Here are my thoughts on how to improve Northwest Indiana.
Continue RDA's work
I believe that the Regional Development Authority has done much to foster regionalism and to further projects that will positively impact the entire region. It should be enthusiastically reauthorized and fully funded by our state legislature. In addition, its primary goals of Gary/Chicago International Airport development, lakeshore reclamation and transportation (most significantly the expansion of the commuter rail to Munster) are inherently regional in benefit.
The continuation of the RDA is important as it fosters regional dialogue, regional planning and assists us in gaining state and federal grants for important infrastructure projects. These improvements will create jobs and long-term opportunity.
Maximize Chicago advantage
Chicago is a world-class city with the third largest economy in the nation. It is a financial center, transportation hub and home to many Fortune 500 companies. Today, Chicago is attracting high tech companies due, in part, to the intense competition for talent in Silicon Valley. Like it or not, Northwest Indiana is a Chicago suburb. Personally, I believe that our proximity to Chicago is immensely beneficial to the region. We need to find every opportunity to connect to that huge economic engine.
In Valpo, we created the ChicaGo Dash commuter bus service which has grown beyond expectations. Every day about 130 Porter County residents ride one of our four scheduled buses into the Loop and bring back wages and benefits which are often 30 percent higher than they could find locally.
We also are creating a new initiative with the state called the Tech Foundry, which will help us benefit from the growing tech industry in Chicago. Also, expanding commuter train service to Munster will create more ways for our residents to tap into Chicago opportunities. Finally, as we make our communities more desirable for living, the lower cost of living and reasonable tax structure will mean more migration of Illinois residents to the region in years ahead.
Revitalize Gary and urban core
Having experienced firsthand both the pinnacle of Gary and its decline, I would love to see its return to economic health and stability. Gary’s weakening was swift and deep due, primarily, to the perfect storm of a rapidly shrinking steel and manufacturing economy and the social upheaval of the 1960s. Now, like similar industry towns, it struggles to reclaim its former prominence.
Unfortunately, for some, Gary stands as a symbol for all of Northwest Indiana, and shapes its reputation. For many Chicagoans, their only view of Northwest Indiana is the blighted neighborhoods and closed businesses along the Toll Road. Also, the Chicago media tends to report stories of Gary’s problems rather than its potential. If we can help restore Gary, it will impact the entire region in profound ways.
What a great story it would be to see this happen. It would lift the spirits and optimism of everyone in the region and open up opportunities we never imagined. Progress has been made recently. The improvements to the Gary/Chicago International Airport are underway, and lakeshore revitalization has enhanced its attraction.
Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson has the old Sheraton Hotel in her sights for demolition. Tearing down that symbol of disrepair will be a great start. Her efforts to partner with the federal government to bring down abandoned homes will help her use resources wisely and reduce crime. I believe that you start small with visible projects and create smaller sustainable neighborhoods and business districts and that success will encourage the private sector to invest. And that is the goal, creating an environment that results in private sector investment. I have great respect for the mayor and her abilities and feel optimistic about her plans. We all should be cheerleaders for her efforts and do what we can to help her and Gary residents find their way back to economic vibrancy.
Refocus on K-12 success
Simply put, our children need to be fully prepared for either the workforce or for postgraduate study when they receive their high school diploma. Graduation rates and performance grades are not consistent throughout the region. Of course, many factors are involved. We must improve low performing schools to improve our region workforce.
Our approach must be student-centered, using innovative and creative methods to meet specific needs. Parental involvement should be expected and there are pilot programs that help bridge the gap of parental support. The governor’s focus on pre-K education and providing more pathways for career and technical training are on track. But the funding must follow. As a region we must decide there is no tolerance for failing any children in K-12 education.
Many employers have indicated that more emphasis is needed on teaching soft skills and basic work habits. Our workforce must align with the needs of our employers. Doing so will help stem the “brain drain” and reduce unemployment.
Be better bridge builders
Both physical bridges and relational bridges are valuable assets, necessary for progress. As to the physical, we must invest more in our infrastructure that is aging and outdated. While I am pleased that Indiana is state with lower tax rates than most, we cannot neglect sound investment in our infrastructure, which does impact economic development. In remaking Valparaiso, we discovered that in-depth planning is necessary to secure federal and state grants to fund infrastructure projects. The funds are available if you have the planning (and fiscal match) in place.
Finally, we must be a region of bridge builders. A bridge builder is a person who forges positive relationships by seeking to understand and appreciate others. Bridge builders are quick to show good will and slow to criticize. Bridge builders focus more on the many things we have in common than the few on which we might disagree. Bridge builders are more about “we” than “me.” They see the benefit in cooperation and the larger good. Bridges are vital for progress; they are hard to build and easy to destroy.
Despite our differences, we must build trust and forge healthy partnerships among governments, communities, schools and businesses for the benefit of Northwest Indiana residents.
While I wouldn't say Northwest Indiana is in the midst of an identity crisis, it has sometimes struggled. At times the region can seem neglected by Indiana as being part of Chicago even while it can seem ignored by Chicago for being in Indiana.
Fortunately, the region is coalescing around key ideas and gaining more momentum every day. There's an energy and vitality brewing in Northwestern Indiana that is engaging both Chicago and Indianapolis as the region lays hold of its own identity and unique assets.
From my vantage point, here are five ideas that build on that momentum, and would make for an even better Northwestern Indiana:
Expand transit service
This region has an integral link with the Chicago metropolitan area and economy, and for the future viability of our region, it is critical to provide access to the Chicago job market. Commuter rail provides the predictability and efficiency that make this connection to Chicago viable and reliable.
This kind of investment in our region sends signals to Chicago interests of the region's commitment to relating to the larger metropolitan area. And the investments in infrastructure needed to sustain this service give a signal to local developers of a commitment to providing that access to the Chicago market, spurring greater development within our region when that rail access is provided.
To complete the journey by rail to a destination in our region, bus, bicycle, and pedestrian amenities need to supplement that investment.
The existing bus transit providers across Northwestern Indiana are doing a heroic job trying to offer a needed service for those without other means of transportation to jobs and medical care. But this service is fragmented and disconnected, providing localized service in some parts of our region but without the ability to connect that service regionally. The problem has always been finding a stable source of local funding to match federal dollars to provide this regional service and make that larger connection. It remains the challenge today.
Enhance our downtowns
The character of Northwest Indiana is found in the unique identity, culture, and history of each of its towns and cities, expressed most purely in their "downtown" environments. The way we shop has changed, and those downtowns that have become successful are those that have transitioned themselves into destinations for unique shopping, dining, entertainment and other such opportunities.
Add commuter rail into that downtown mix with transit-oriented development, and you have a recipe for transforming Northwestern Indiana into a vibrant powerhouse, especially when a 24/7 residential presence locates in walkable proximity to these centers.
This is the future residential market for multiple segments of the generational spectrum, as empty-nesters seek smaller residences in closer proximity to dining and entertainment, older residents seek to drive less while being less isolated, and younger homebuyers just entering the market with new buying power seek greater community, vibrancy and activity.
Focusing on our downtowns in this way also has the benefit of reducing the infrastructure burden outside these center places.
NIRPC's new Creativing Livable Centers program, a direct outgrowth of the region's award-winning 2040 Comprehensive Regional Plan, is an example of putting resources in place to match the vision of making our center places more livable, walkable and vital. This shift is already happening across the country, and Northwest Indiana is poised to seize it, from our urban to our more rural communities.
Improving access to natural areas
Our region is defined and framed by its natural areas, from the Indiana Dunes lakeshore on the north to the Kankakee River to the south (each the subject of compelling documentary films, one already released and the other forthcoming). We live in the very birthplace of the ecological movement and of important environmental initiatives.
We share the rich heritage of the Calumet Region, which has been the impetus for much bistate partnership and collaboration from the Pullman neighborhood in Illinois to the west to our national park on the east.
More and more visitors discover these natural areas every day as word spreads of what Northwest Indiana has to offer within close proximity of a major metropolitan population.
One of our greatest regional success stories is the creation of more than 130 miles of paved trails in Northwestern Indiana, used in all seasons by runners, walkers and bicylists. With most migratory bird species making their way through our region, greater numbers of birdwatchers have come to the state and national parks. And countless hours of volunteer work have helped clean up our waterways to propel Northwestern Indiana into a premier destination for paddlers.
These are tremendous successes that can be futher enhanced by increasing opportunties for access by the larger Chicago population. Just as Northwest Indiana seeks to create better access to the Chicago job market, the region should keep extending the opportunity of those from the Chicago area to share the uniqueness of our natural environment.
Finding a way for those from the greater Chicago area to bring their bicycles on commuter rail to access the region's trails and parks would open the door to additional economic development and tourism opportunities while having minimal impact on these natural areas.
While Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore and Indiana Dunes State Park collectively see millions of visitors each year, the region has yet to experience the kind of associated economic development that has been experienced in other parts of the country with such resources. The strength of partnerships forged across this region between environmental and economic interests is strong. Working together, the region can better leverage these natural assets for economic potential while ensuring the ecological sensitivity necessary to help preserve them.
Clean it up
Beautification efforts are not just gloss and show, but they also lay the groundwork for bringing new residents and visitors and for increasing business investment. The civic improvements by former Mayor Richard M. Daley cannot be underestimated in contributing to Chicago's success. Northwestern Indiana needs the same.
Cleaning things up changes perception, and perception has a lot to do with where people are willing to make investments of their homes and businesses.
Studies have shown a strong correlation between the cleanliness of communities and perceptions of safety. Real or imagined, the region will never make a dent in changing its image as a safe place to be unless it simply looks better.
That means trees and landscaping, new coats of paint, restoration and rehabilitation of historically significant structures, comfortable public spaces and sometimes even demolition.
That means clean parks and waterways and beaches.
That means improved business facades, attractive transit hubs integrated into our downtown places, and landscaped parking lots that do not dwarf the businesses they serve.
That also means the things that capture folks' attention at high rates of speed. If they don't stop on their way through Northwest Indiana, most people's image of our region is the ads they are exposed to along the Borman. If these are all you saw, what are the few things you would think Northwest Indiana is all about? Are these the same things you are happy to point to as representing where you live? Cleaning things up is about how the region helps sell itself.
Talk it up
Soon after I started at NIRPC I was asked by a local media personality why I'd come to a region with so many politicians in jail. My response was that if that's true, at least they are in jail ... which means the justice system is working! Decreasing tolerance for unethical behavior is actually a sign of progress ... and instead of cynically dwelling in a land of sarcasm, I'd rather tell the story of how Northwest Indiana is rapidly cleaning up its act and is, in reality, gaining increasing momentum.
Cynicism is as corrosive as the pollution and blight that mar some portions of our landscape. What we say makes a difference, and we can either contribute to perpetuating stereotypes — and be stuck there — or we can focus on what's unique and special about our environment and our towns and our lakefront and our industry and our people.
Each time someone asks us where we're from, there is an opportunity to change any negative perceptions about where we live, and to talk up the assets and the vitality of this region. We do need regional branding, but no branding campaign is as effective as word of mouth in personal, daily interactions. That's something that all of us have the power to contribute to.
Earlier I mentioned the challenges of Northwest Indiana finding its identity in relation to both Chicago and Indianapolis. The truth is, Northwest Indiana is unique, and not like anywhere else in Indiana, or Illinois. Or Michigan. or anywhere in the country, for that matter.
Acknowledging and improving our place in the larger Chicago market faces head-on the reality of our economic situation, and, frankly, is critical to our survival. But our uniqueness in that market is our strength, and we need to celebrate it, trumpet it, invite folks into it, and step up into our place in this larger regional economy.
Talking it up is not something left to a few organizations or those with that specific charge. It's the responsibility of all of us, in every interaction we have. Sounds simple, but it may be the most important step any of us can take toward building a better region.
There was a time when the steel mills along our lakeshore defined us. Northwest Indiana was the Steel Capital of the World. Tens of thousands of men and women werer making the steel that built our cars, our skyscrapers, our washers and dryers.
But that was yesterday. And, even though our mills still produce tons of steel, right or wrong we have moved away from that association. The question is: Who are we? When a new acquaintance asks where you are from, what is your response? And more importantly, who do we want to be?
Quite often, one’s reply is framed or described in terms of their hometown’s best-known asset. A New York City native might mention iconic symbols, such as the Statue of Liberty or perhaps Times Square. A Chicagoan might refer to shopping along the Magnificent Mile or the beautiful lakefront. The Golden Gate Bridge would surely be the top landmark for many San Franciscans.
What is our unforgettable landmark or event? What diamond in the rough assets can we polish to make it the pride of Northwest Indiana? What can we add to our culture to attract young talent? Permit me to offer several areas that might yield the potential to attract people and business.
Wanted: starving artists
Let’s roll out the Northwest Indiana welcome mat to artists. Let us create zones in our regions where artists would be offered free or low cost homes or apartments and studio space. And we would waive sales taxes on their artwork, be it a painting, pottery, photograph, sculpture or other medium. I’ve been fascinated with the success enjoyed by Providence, R.I., the first city in the nation to create a tax-free zone for artists. Empty storefronts, a downtown river and a strong university system were this city’s raw assets or ingredients to spark a downtown revival.
This year marks the 20th anniversary of WaterFire Providence. The New England city’s signature event has been to light the Providence River on fire by lighting more than 80 floating bonfires that rest inside braziers, resembling huge woks, that float down the tranquil downtown river. Approximately 12 times a year — beginning in May and continuing past Labor Day, the fires are lit at sunset and continue until midnight. Since 1994, WaterFire Providence claims more than 10 million residents and visitors have been downtown for this community’s signature event, many coming early to dine, enjoy a drink or two, and listen to a variety of musicians who provide additional entertainment as a prelude to the evening of fire.
The classroom as laboratory
Technology is about to liberate learning and challenge the current process to acquire skills beyond high school. The advent of massive open online courses will permit people to take courses and then validate that knowledge from independent testing agencies. While there will certainly be a preference by many to enjoy the campus experience at Lafayette, Bloomington or Muncie, other students will prefer to learn without leaving their hometown.
We could see creation of a teacher-training institute in Northwest Indiana. As our region continues to post unemployment rates exceeding other areas of Indiana, perhaps our best path to future economic success rests with a well-prepared teaching force adept at integrating technology and state of the art teaching practices into the classroom. Our local universities could participate in delivering their teacher education programs at a single site which could be enhanced by professional development provided by “guest” speakers and lecturers from around the country.
Our country’s most successful companies excel because they value human capital. These firms understand and fully accept staff development as a necessary cost to deliver products on time and provide excellent customer service with every transaction. So, too, should we invest in teacher training to raise the skill level and work ethic of our next generation of workers.
Developing sense of community
A well-known author and speaker, Richard Florida, says that “place” is important to young people. Our wonderful Lake Michigan and its dunes provide a fantastic place in which to live and play. However we can do more to create “place” by developing communities which connect people from the region. Valparaiso is creating a sense of community through the development of Central Park.
With our lakeshore attracting millions of visitors, ideas for using it as the epicenter of activities in the summer and winter should be supported. Perhaps we could create an annual, signature event. Would it not be something if 10 Northwest Indiana communities adopted a common theme or focus on the same date or dates, and invited visitors and residents to spend all day or a weekend sampling our food, talent and hospitality? Chicago’s Grant Park is the setting for multiple music acts; our communities could offer musical performances at 10 venues through our cities and towns.
Highways and byways
Of course, getting folks to these various locations raises another regional need and that is an investment in our transportation corridors. We applaud recent efforts to accommodate east-west traffic on the Illiana Expressway, but attention must certainly be given to U.S. 30 and calls for a South Shore spur connecting Munster and towns further south.
Our highway system has failed to follow population patterns in our region. A greater percentage of our region’s folks have migrated from the cities hugging the Lake Michigan shoreline to locations south of U.S. 30 and east of Ind. 49.
Additionally, investment in Cline Avenue which still shoulders heavy traffic to steel plants and other manufacturing jobs, is essential to avoid the daily bottlenecks on the road driving to and from work. And let’s not forget the Gary/Chicago International Airport as a hub of activity. It is now closer to reality than ever before.
I join other business and community leaders in support of creating of a South Shore Line that has high potential for boosting new residential development to undeveloped areas in the southern part of Lake County. We know that a large number of Northwest Indiana residents now work in Chicago or its suburbs; but such a line would surely attract people who now find affordable housing in Chicago and its suburbs out of reach.
Broadband: The other highway
Of course, there are people who work and never leave home. Fiber optic cable is now available in the most populous parts of our region but speed and connectivity needs to be improved. We need to think in economic development terms. As prospects are courted for NWI, they want shovel ready property and buildings. Our challenge in promoting residential and business growth is to make sure low density areas are also “shovel ready” to meet today’s technology needs of business which rely on high speed connections as a backbone to their survival and growth and afford enticing opportunities for entrepreneurs to develop new products and applications here rather than going to Chicago.
Understanding our region’s strengths that support a unique identity has been a rewarding experience for many cities. It has made cities more connected, innovative, talented and compelling to visitors, new companies and other key audiences.
Without much thought, The City that Never Sleeps or the Mardis Gras City are both memorable slogans celebrating the unique attributes of each city.
So, who can we be?
I was born and raised in Northwest Indiana. Every paycheck has been earned here. I believe in Northwest Indiana and a future brighter than most think is possible. Who are we? We can be anything we want to be. But we need to pull together, invest and implement our solid ideas to achieve that next level of opportunity.
As a lifelong resident of Northwest Indiana, this is a unique place to call home in our wonderful country. When I think about what it is about NWI that makes it a place to call home, it is all about family. My dad, his brothers, and many others came here for work. Historically, the mills brought many people here because they could make a living for their families.
The economic factor cannot be denied that this was a great place to work and provide for a family. How do we continue to provide a standard of excellence for families in NWI? The key is education, education and education. Of course, you should expect this from my perspective as an educator who desires achievement for students in every phase of life. When education is coupled with hard work, the sky is the limit for a successful future. Let’s explore five major ideas to make NWI stronger, noting that education is a critical aspect in helping us build a better NWI.
It is infrastructure that will foster economic growth in the region. Business leaders in NWI are serious about growth. This means jobs for families. Business leaders are committed to bringing more companies to NWI to operate alongside global companies like ArcelorMittal, BP and U.S. Steel Corp. These companies have found world-class locations in Northwest Indiana. We should support our business leaders and their quest to ensure infrastructure needs are met. Projects needing support include: promoting and developing the Gary/Chicago International Airport, expansion of the South Shore rail line, development of the Illiana Expressway and mapping the regional fiber-optic grid.
Leaders in K-12 and higher education meet with NWI’s employers, and their message is that they have jobs for a skilled workforce. These jobs require education beyond a high school diploma which include a certification, a technical degree, an associate or bachelor’s degree and beyond.
Safe communities are an absolute must if the region wants to grow and thrive. It’s time to help each other build neighborhoods where every person can feel safe and secure from drugs, gangs and crime. We must teach respect for law enforcement and commit to the idea that it's everyone’s job to have safe and caring neighborhoods. Parents need to be vigilant with supervising their children by equipping themselves with knowledge to prevent cyber predators, social media bullying, drugs and gangs. Know your child, their friends, their habits and their whereabouts. Programs that promote values, service to others, as well as providing mentoring opportunities are critical for the high expectations we want to instill in our children. Boys & Girls Clubs, YMCAs, faith-based organizations, and extracurricular clubs in schools help students be connected, reach their goals and contribute to society in a positive way.
Healthy living is a necessity for longevity and happiness. Business, government, health care, schools and parents all have roles in providing the means for healthy living. We must always demand that the quality of air, land and water is protected and preserved. Our government must strengthen local public health departments to provide essential services. Improved access to social and mental health services is critical. Health care systems are vital partners for conducting comprehensive community health needs’ assessments and plans. Bringing the educational components of healthier living programs to people whether at work, school or the library provides easy access and will contribute to more successful outcomes.
It is recreation that fosters happy living in NWI. We should continue to expand experiences for family and friends to enjoy their time together by capitalizing on the location of NWI for fun, healthy educational activities. Outdoor adventures such as biking, fishing, hiking, swimming, boating and hunting are all ways to take in the region. The miles of beaches, trails and sand dunes are truly a national treasure. The South Shore or a quick drive to the beautiful city of Chicago is another option for opportunities to learn and have fun while visiting museums, theaters, parks and pro sports venues.
A quality education provides opportunity, and must be treated as a valuable asset. Education, along with hard work, are keys to a successful life. The most recent Pew data indicates that people with a degree or certification gained jobs in the recession. Individuals with only a high school diploma or less education lost the most and are struggling the most to recover. We must provide a world class educational system for the jobs we know are available.
Early education is critical for a child's achievement. Education begins at birth. Health care and schools can partner to provide in-home visits with programs like Parents As Teachers to assist parents with this important time of a child’s life. It is hard to imagine that a child does not have to go to school until 7 years old, but that is the law in Indiana. If Indiana is committed to raising academic achievement, it must mandate all-day kindergarten and provide full-funding tuition like every other grade level receives. Total commitment to higher academic achievement also would include fully funded preschool programs for all children.
Increasing certification and college completion requires partnerships. READY NWI is a group of committed leaders from business, higher education, K-12 education and The Center of Workforce Innovations who have united in a unique way to align employability skills and assessments to indicate when a student is ready for college and careers. Model programming is required. Career pathways are critical opportunities needed for students to explore professions. Employers are necessary for providing internships for experiential learning. Early (dual) college credit classes are strategic to helping students graduate college on time to enter the workforce.
Legislators need to collaborate with educators before enacting laws. It is vital to have an understanding of what it takes to have a world-class education system in Indiana. The following are important changes that should be implemented:
a) Restore and properly fund public education, which should end monies being diverted from public schools to charter schools and voucher programs. Funding is critical for early education, college and career-ready curriculum, intervention and remediation, as well as early college classes.
b) Provide consistency as to what academic standards will be taught.
c) Make educator qualifications for licensing strenuous and avoid reducing the requirements to be an educator.
d) Choose a college- and career-readiness assessment plan for grades three through 11 that provides a trajectory for growth and discontinue adding assessments that are not connected or build an accurate profile of a child.
e) Measure school achievement for accountability with a statistically valid protocol.
Education is key to successful employment, safe communities, healthy living, enriching recreation and continued prosperity. Northwest Indiana is made up of proud people who have the potential to continue to make this a wonderful place for families to call home.
Northwest Indiana has a long and distinguished history. From its roots in steelmaking and heavy manufacturing through its historically excellent educational system and many contributions to the arts, sciences, and athletics, Northwest Indiana has every right to be very proud. Like many Midwestern "Rust Belt" communities, however, we have suffered over the last four decades. Technological innovations have enabled our major employers to become more efficient and more productive with less labor. It is a story repeated across America.
During this time, most of our smaller communities developed the habit of functioning independently, often in isolation. As we grew, the green space between many of our communities was consumed to the point that driving from one community to another made the differences indistinguishable. Welcoming road signs are the only way to tell you are leaving one geopolitical jurisdiction and entering another.
In our nation’s history, we have occasionally recognized the need to come together and address common concerns. Two notable national examples were our response to the attack on Pearl Harbor and more recently our response to the attack on the World Trade Center. While the resulting American spirit following these two attacks is commendable it begs the question as to whether under only the most adverse and traumatic circumstances will we voluntarily attempt to work together.
More recently and more peaceably, the tax caps imposed by the Indiana General Assembly have caused us to at least talk about working together. It still appears to be a challenge, however, as we have recently observed. The inability of the town of Munster and the town of Highland to create a common fire district, criticism instead of accolades when Portage offered help to Gary when it needed snowplows, and criticism when a regional public safety initiative is launched to make our communities safer.
In the face of this continuing parochial behavior we must strive to improve the quality of life for all residents. To the extent our collective quality of life can be enhanced through increased collaboration, it should be pursued vigorously and unashamedly. That is the goal of One Region.
Indiana is failing to invest in our future. Our educational system is suffering under a lack of funding. Our roads and bridges are crumbling, and our investment in both people and infrastructure continues to be minimal. Accordingly, I suggest we consider more seriously than ever before those initiatives, big ideas if you will, that will help position us for a better future for our children and grandchildren.
Increased transportation investment
We must commit ourselves to increased investment in transportation infrastructure. That includes expanding commuter rail service, rebuilding the Cline Avenue Bridge, (not a toll bridge) resurfacing our roads and bridges. Transportation, in all its forms, is the lifeblood of every community. To believe "everyone has a car" is to deny the reality of road congestion, air pollution and the evolving lifestyle of contemporary Americans. We cannot afford to lose the productivity that could be achieved if we were not routinely stuck in traffic for longer and longer periods of time. We need a Regional Transportation Authority.
Invest in our children
For nearly four decades Indiana has ranked near the bottom of all 50 states in our educational attainment level. To be sure, some of this ranking is due to outmigration, the alleged "brain drain," about which we have heard so much. The fact is our colleges and universities are graduating a reasonable number of students but many leave the area. That departure, including my own children, is a function of greater opportunity elsewhere.
At the same time, Indiana is among only 10 states that do not mandate and fund early childhood education. Quality education that provides the maximum opportunity for all students to grow and achieve is a must. We cannot continue to say “we agree” — but then fail to find the necessary funding. The mindless attack on taxes causing us to continually remove funding from the very resources that will make our region strong, is irresponsible. We need to invest in our children!
Reform taxation system
An antiquated taxing system creates winners and losers among our communities. Whether it is funding for poor relief or the variations in tax abatement offered to lure developers, the unevenness that these systems create is not in Northwest Indiana’s collective interest.
Former Gary Mayor Scott King was fond of describing the “Great Krispy Kreme War” in which Highland and Schererville engaged in tax abatement bidding to land that business. As almost everyone knows now, neither community won because that business is now closed. There has to be a better way. Save our community competition for the athletic field!
We must be willing to accept the results of the recently awarded contract to conduct a feasibility study for a trauma center and teaching hospital. Those of us involved in this process hope the resulting report will recommend creating both the trauma center and the teaching hospital. Should that be the cas,e we in Northwest Indiana and those in the leadership of the Indiana General Assembly and governor’s office must commit to seeing both the trauma center and the teaching hospital through to completion and operation. We in Northwest Indiana need to rally around the creation of these entities because they hold tremendous promise for the future economic development and health of our region.
We need to commit ourselves to increased cooperation and collaboration as a set of goals unto themselves. The accomplished actor William Pullman, playing the role of the president of the United States in the movie "Independence Day," offered the following quote as he rallied our troops to combine with others in attacking an international enemy. "We must put aside our petty differences …" Petty differences! In Northwest Indiana we have made such arguments a blood sport! We need to work together.
Whiting, under the leadership of Mayor Joseph Stahura, provides an excellent example of how cooperation and collaboration can lead to a better result for all. A few years ago, Stahura and the Whiting City Council were faced with the prospect of needing to rebuild their ailing water filtration plant. In the face of local criticism wanting to preserve Whiting's autonomy, the decision was ultimately made to contract with Hammond to purchase water from it.
The result was that Whiting reclaimed part of its lakefront and saved the cost of rebuilding the old water filtration plant. This success has been touted across Northwest Indiana as an example of collaboration for the greater good. It should be a model for us all.
The parable about the fishermen in a leaking boat is instructive. The fisherman in the back of the boat remarks, “Sure glad the leak is in the front of the boat!”
Let’s work together for the good of us all!
Editor's note: The five ideas for building Northwest Indiana that Vanessa Allen, president and CEO of the Urban League of Northwest Indiana, see as crucial concern collaboration, transportation, youth leadership, diversity and inclusion, and income equity.
Northwest Indiana is home to a diverse representation of sole proprietorships, large enterprises, educational institutions and not-for-profit entities that offer a multitude of services to the residents and visitors to the region.
In addition, governmental entities can increase their effectiveness through collaborations in buying big ticket items together and through cooperative agreements.
With the great amount of for-profit and nonprofit resources that exist in the region, there is often a lack of communication between NWI businesses that results in the duplication of services and an ineffectiveness in attracting NWI residents and tourists to live, work and recreate in the area.
To build NWI, the employers, employees and residents of the region will need to seek opportunities to determine the commonalities in their services, establish a marketing plan that will attract more business into the region and join together as a united front of key stakeholders that are invested in the growth and future of Northwest Indiana.
The ability of workers, residents and tourists of Northwest Indiana to travel within the region is an issue requiring immediate and focused attention. The region is severely impacted by the loss of revenue from NWI residents who must commute outside of the region to work and from non-NWI residents who would prefer to recreate in the area, but are limited because of the lack of accessible and affordable transportation. In addition, too many residents of NWI are limited to lower wage employment or no employment because they lack mobility to travel for work and to attend to their family’s needs simultaneously. The growth of Northwest Indiana would be heightened greatly with the development of an affordable bus system that would connect the business districts and residential areas throughout the region.
It is no secret to those considering the growth of Northwest Indiana that the future of the region lies in the hands of those who are 40 years of age and younger. It is imperative to the region’s growth that the younger leaders are mentored in the areas of business, financial management, education, health care, law, philanthropy, environment, media, politics, infrastructure and the arts. Through mentorship and inclusion of the young leaders of Northwest Indiana in the conversations on initiatives that will impact them and their families, the region will be certain to sustain and attract the best and the brightest to work, live and recreate in Northwest Indiana.
Through the partnership and collaborative efforts between NIPSCO and the Urban League of NWI, education is ranked at the top of our agenda. Through a four-year investment in the pilot program called In-Power, 100 percent of those participating students will graduate on time being better aware of the requirements of college expectations, the admissions process, and financial aid opportunities. This could serve as a model.
This type of collaboration enhances the awareness and connectedness of school, education, work, skill-sets, family and outreach services of nonprofit agencies through partnerships with local businesses. This In-Power program could serve as a model for other businesses looking to expand the horizons and expectations of students in our region.
Clearly, education is the fundamental foundation for all future advancements of Northwest Indiana’s population.
Diversity and inclusion
There is a saying that growth is optional, but change is inevitable. One of the effects of the recent economic downturns in our society is the migration of people to different geographical areas to seek a more affordable cost of living. While Northwest Indiana obviously has areas to grow, the region does provide opportunities for those who are seeking affordable housing, child care and options to stretch their dollars further. These opportunities create an environment in which people from varied generations, educational backgrounds, religious beliefs, socioeconomic status and family structure live, work and recreate in the same arenas.
While the presence of such diversity can cause fear in many who are not accustomed to it, the acceptance of the inevitable change in the cultural landscape of the region is integral to its growth. The inclusion of individuals from diverse backgrounds throughout the region is an opportunity to enhance the image of Northwest Indiana as a place where we all may be different, but we share the same vision and aspirations to build strong families, a stable economy and a sustainable future.
Among the numerous occasions that are celebrated with luncheons, galas and other public events in Northwest Indiana, we do not find a regionwide recognition and celebration of diversity, equity and inclusion. For the Urban League, this absence is an opportunity to not only focus greater attention on those who are successfully engaging the diversity of our region but deepen the sense of common purpose for a better future for all Northwest Indiana residents.
The Urban League of Northwest Indiana will present its second annual Diversity & Inclusion Awards Luncheon on March 20 at Avalon Manor.
Income equity and employment
The disparities between those in the region who enjoy a comfortable lifestyle with retirement savings and health care and those who live below the poverty level is devastatingly massive.
The unemployment rate especially in the northern tier cities such as Gary, Hammond and East Chicago is unacceptable! It ranges ranges from 20 percent in Hammond and 28 percent in East Chicago to almost 40 percent in Gary.
Sustainable unemployed can be dealt with through job training and apprenticeship programs that lead to real sustainable jobs.
The gap caused by inequities in wages and salaries in the region must be attended to for Northwest Indiana to have a sustainable future. As with most cities, the lower income residents spend more per capita than higher income residents.
Should the minimum wage and employment opportunities for NWI workers increase to a level where more of the region’s residents are capable of maintaining an affordable lifestyle, the region will inevitably enjoy a greater expansion in the economy, in business development and in tourism.
We already have a great place to work, live, and raise a family — even if sometimes we do not recognize all our advantages. As good as Northwest Indiana is, it could always be better. The following are some thoughts on how we could improve our quality of life.
Make no small plans
Daniel Burham said that about Chicago long ago, and I say it today about Northwest Indiana. The amazing thing is that many big ideas are already in the process. One of our best thinkers, U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, has given us the Marquette Plan. After several years of planning and discussion, the concept that industry and recreation can coexist along the shores of Lake Michigan is being realized — the stunning renovation of Gary’s Marquette Park, the beautiful lakefront project in Portage, the exciting shoreline development in Whiting and a little away from the lake, Hammond’s Wolf Lake project and downtown developments in Hobart and Valparaiso.
And there’s more — Gary/Chicago International Airport is moving along with runway expansion and a new public-private development agreement. The expansion of the South Shore commuter railroad (another Visclosky concept) is finally looking like a possibility. The Gary bus system is exploring expansion of service to other communities. Valparaiso is planning a new mass transportation facility. Cline Avenue will be rebuilt soon, and the Illiana Expressway seems to have a good chance, too. The Ports of Indiana may construct a facility in Gary. A giant intermodal operation is being planned for LaPorte. When you stop to think about all these projects and many more, you have to ask yourself: Who said we aren't moving ahead in a big way? The challenge to all of us is to keep thinking regionally and encouraging our public officials to get these exciting projects completed.
Build an ethics culture
Northwest Indiana has always been a heavy industry, meat and potatoes type place. Our people come from all backgrounds and points of view. Sometimes, we are a little rough around the edges. Over the years, our families, churches and schools have helped to polish us, but more could be done. As president of the Shared Ethics Advisory Commission, I preside over a group of volunteers who train municipal employees on ethical decision-making. But out of all the communities in Northwest Indiana, only 11 are commission members. As a first step in building an ethics culture, I ask you to encourage your elected officials to join the commission. I would even go further and urge business, labor, education and religious groups to join with us in a summit meeting to discuss best practices and perhaps develop an ethics recognition event or award.
We need more jobs and a workforce that is job ready. Better connectivity to Chicago (via the South Shore) will open that job market. Economic development on a regional basis will help with jobs here. The Regional Development Authority, Northwest Indiana Forum and countywide efforts in Porter, LaPorte and Lake counties are the engines that can drive local job growth. And don’t forget about the thousands of good-paying jobs that already exist in local industry and recreation. In the next several years, we will experience a wave of retirements.
Our youths (and importantly their school counselors) need to be made aware of these opportunities and the skills required. There is also too much chronic unemployment among the adult population. Some folks are burdened by poor life choices. But we can’t let past mistakes be a barrier. Workforce training and employment need to show more flexibility with people who have nonviolent criminal records or a history of some drug abuse (especially marijuana). Let’s get these people trained and back in the workforce. If history teaches anything, it is the profound danger to social order from having a permanent underclass who have no stake in society. Jobs and families are the keystones to stability and prosperity.
So much has been discovered about early childhood development. We should already have universal all-day kindergarten (but of course we don't). Actually we need to start much earlier, even before birth, like Parents As Teachers (the Early Learning Partnership) does. This effort cries out for more public and private financial support. Let’s use some of the state’s massive surplus for this important investment. For older youths, public transportation and entertainment activities are critical.
Arts and culture exist throughout Northwest Indiana. Festivals abound — Pierogi in Whiting, Popcorn in Valparaiso, Dark Lord Day in Munster and Hammond’s Festival of the Lakes, to mention just a few. We have world-class beaches, the Star Plaza Theatre and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. All these activities need to be pulled together on a widely available calendar so everyone realizes there are ample opportunities to party close to home. The recently released “Brewery Trail” highlighting local craft breweries is a good first step.
Believe in ourselves
If there is one thing Northwest Indiana suffers from, it’s an inferiority complex. Too often, we apologize for our area. Remember this: If we don’t believe in ourselves, no one else will either. I’m not saying put on rose-colored glasses or ignore the many challenges that confront us. We can face up to our challenges and still be positive about the many pluses in our area. The power of positive thinking may be intangible, but its effects are real. I remember back to a time when the first Tom McDermott became mayor of Hammond. The city was in decline and felt badly about itself. But even with limited funding in the pre-casino era, his enthusiasm and positive attitude caught on and have helped propel improvements in the city to this day. All of us can adopt a similar approach for our own benefit and the benefit of our region.
Let’s be thankful for all that we have while also working to bring more good things to fruition. A successful region never stands still. Let’s make sure our best days are ahead.
We all have ideas for making Northwest Indiana better, but which ideas are the best of the best?
We asked some of the movers and shakers in Northwest Indiana to offer their ideas for this special section. Some major themes emerged.
They want to build a strong infrastructure, whether it's roads, bridges, airports, broadband, education or health care.
They want to revitalize the urban core.
They want to build a better sense of self, to grasp our role in the Chicago metropolitan area and to build cohesion as residents of Northwest Indiana and partners in its success.
They want to improve the environment, whether it's curbing pollution, increasing access to the lakeshore and other natural areas or simply picking up trash and fixing up structures.
They want to make our government more efficient and less expensive.
In other words, they want to help Northwest Indiana realize its potential, and they want everyone to work together toward that common goal.
On March 16, The Times will offer a comprehensive report on Northwest Indiana from a variety of perspectives. Today, enjoy reading these inspiring observations.
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