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.