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.