Sometimes it seems that there is a mile-long list of things communities are considering to improve their overall quality of life. But those lists get narrowed quickly as practical implementation and funding are taken into consideration.
When considering how to carefully invest our limited resources, where do we start? There are so many needs to meet and every life affected is important. Do we pursue better educational options for our children? Do we tackle public safety concerns? Do we focus solely on lowering our unemployment rate? Those are just a few important issues being discussed widely in Northwest Indiana.
With so many issues facing us, public officials must focus time and resources on catalytic investments that will build a base on which all other challenges can eventually be addressed. In other words, we have to treat the disease and not just the symptoms. We must have the courage to make long-term investments and to lead from the front as we do so.
We now live in a global economy that has impacted local regions across the United States in vastly different ways. Areas like ours have suffered due to a shrinking manufacturing base and the related loss of jobs. For the most part those losses have stabilized, and in some sectors there is even growth, but that does not absolve us of responsibility to proactively improve our future prospects. In fact, we are out of excuses not to do so.
So out of so many issues worthy of our attention, what are the five things we can do to right now to set a new direction for Northwest Indiana — a new direction that leads to middle class prosperity, a repopulation of our urban core, a healthier environment and a community that has the resources to tackle the issues that have plagued this area for decades?
When considering this question, I am drawn to what makes the region unique. What strengths exist only here that will make us invaluable to the global market that will fund our future?
Look to the west
We have looked to big industry in the north along the shoreline for so long that many times we miss out on the value of connecting to one of the largest markets in the world. It is imperative that we build the infrastructure to take people to and from work in Chicago. That includes not only expanding and upgrading commuter rail, but establishing a regional bus system and integrating the Gary/Chicago International Airport into the Chicago marketplace. With our low taxes and strong quality of life right next door to Chicago, Northwest Indiana is positioned to lead the entire state of Indiana in economic development — if we embrace our unique location and leverage it.
Look in the mirror
Those of us who are natives and those who have come to love this area know what a wonderful place Northwest Indiana can be. However, to the newcomer it can be an acquired taste. Like many of the things we enjoy best in life, the region is clearly strong and powerful but sometimes bitter. And yet once one understands that our strengths far outweigh our weaknesses, a regular customer is born.
Invest in Lake Michigan
To remove some bitterness, we must focus on brownfield remediation and the continued investment in the revitalization of the Lake Michigan shoreline. New employers are attracted to clean sites and existing employers are willing to partner to return used lakeshore properties to the public. Just take a look at the Portage Lakefront Park, the new Whiting lakefront, Wolf Lake in Hammond and so on.
Working with our partners in industry, including BP, U.S. Steel, ArcelorMittal and others, we have already begun to use the irreplaceable natural beauty of Northwest Indiana to bring people and business back.
We must get out of our own way
Over the last few years I have witnessed a positive change in attitudes among leaders in Northwest Indiana. We are beginning to vacate myopic parochialism in favor of teamwork and a common vision. Still, we experience too many setbacks along the way.
Imagine a foot race where we are all tied together as a team. If I trip my neighbor, I may finish before him by dragging him across the finish line. Meanwhile, the team that stuck together wins the race. We either win or lose together. A “local victory” means nothing, but a regional success gets us into the global game.
We need more trains and buses to get people to jobs in Chicago and to spend the money back here.
We need to firmly establish the Gary airport as a significant part of the Chicago aviation market.
We need to continue to invest in our shoreline and related recreational and tourism opportunities.
We need to work with various partners to clean up unused industrial sites and brownfields in preparation for new development.
And finally, we need to run this race as a team.
I believe that if these five things are focused on intensely, there will be no obstacle we cannot overcome.