JON COSTAS: Build bridges; region only as strong as its weakest links

2014-03-09T00:00:00Z 2014-03-15T23:21:32Z JON COSTAS: Build bridges; region only as strong as its weakest linksJon Costas, mayor of Valparaiso nwitimes.com
March 09, 2014 12:00 am  • 

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.

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