DENNIS RITTENMEYER: Regional approach must be NWI's path

2014-03-09T00:00:00Z 2014-03-15T23:21:29Z DENNIS RITTENMEYER: Regional approach must be NWI's pathDennis Rittenmeyer, executive director of One Region nwitimes.com

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!

Trauma center

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.

Cooperation

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!

Dennis Rittenmeyer is executive director of One Region. The opinions are the writer's.

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