A decade ago, Northwest Indiana would never have considered a collaborative bid to bring a major corporate headquarters to the Region.

That's not the case today. In recent years, civic, community and business leaders have chiseled away at parochial walls. This movement of joining forces has led to a new way of thinking across Northwest Indiana — the Region is an economic force offering an affordable cost of living that's worth a look. 

"The collaboration happening in the region is very exciting," said Heather Ennis, president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Forum, a Portage-based economic development organization. "It's fun to watch the power of believing in ourselves and doing the hard work to move the bar to the next level." 

In late October, a regional bid from Northwest Indiana, as well as separate bids for Gary and Hammond, joined more than 200 from across the U.S. and Canada hoping to land a multi-billion dollar second headquarters development by online retail giant Amazon. The Seattle-based company, which will announce the winning bid sometime in 2018, has said the project could create more than 50,000 new and potential six-figure salary jobs.

Ennis said people across the Region recognize the "tremendous assets it has to offer" a company such as Amazon as well as others that take the time to look.

"The world is watching," she said. "All of these projects help us to hone our game so that we are prepared every time opportunity strikes. The better we feel about our Region, the easier it is to sell."

State of the economy

Heavy manufacturing has been the foundation of The Region's economy for decades but as leaders work to diversify the local job mix to keep pace with national trends, its blue-collar image can be a difficult stereotype to overcome, local economic experts say.

"What's happening now is that there's a structural shift going on in the U.S. and it's been happening since the 1970s," said Micah Pollak, assistant professor of economics at Indiana University Northwest. "We've been moving away from traditional goods manufacturing to more service sector jobs, which is OK so long as those (disappearing) good paying manufacturing jobs are being replaced by equally good paying technology and finance sector jobs." 

As manufacturing jobs faded, communities seeking to shore up shrinking tax bases welcomed any development, Pollak said. 

"Instead of trying to bring in comparable paying jobs to what we lost in manufacturing, we just let whatever come in and those are lower paying retail and food service-type jobs," he said. 

This makes overall employment numbers look good, Pollak said. Indiana's jobless rate in August, the latest available, was 4 percent, which was below the U.S. rate of 4.5 percent. 

"When you look deeper into the data, those numbers show a lot of low-paying service sector jobs with minimal benefits and not comparable to the manufacturing jobs we've been losing," Pollak said. 

The Region's economy is growing at an annual rate of between 1 percent and 1.5 percent, Pollak said. That's below Indiana's overall annual growth rate of about 2 percent and behind the U.S. average of about 3 percent. 

Northwest Indiana's reliance on manufacturing also is among the reasons the regional economy's growth lags behind the state and nation, Pollak said. Forecasts suggest the Region's economy will experience an annual growth rate of about 1 percent during the next six months.

If this forecast holds, it may boost the Gross Regional Product, or total output of goods and services produced, in the Region. 

Regional economic data monitored by Purdue University Northwest shows the 2016 GRP totaled $36.8 billion, down from $37.5 billion in 2015. A drop in manufacturing output was the largest contributor to the decline.

Tony Sindone, clinical professor of finance and economic development for Purdue University Northwest, estimated the Region's GRP was at about $34 billion in late October, which suggests 2017 may show improvement from last year. 

A number Sindone finds promising about the Region's economy is earnings by residents. Residents earned $19.3 billion in 2016, up from $19.1 billion in 2015.

"This is an indicator that people have more money in their pockets," Sindone said, suggesting they have more to spend. 

Rail a catalyst 

The potential for a shift in regional income may come through population growth fueled by the Double Track and West Lake Corridor rail projects, which could be in service by 2020 and 2022, respectively. 

"The dual rail line going from Chicago to South Bend will be a boom for economic development all along that line and of course the extension to Dyer," Sindone said. "Anytime you build infrastructure there is a multiplier effect, not only through the rail investment, but the development along the rail line (which will) increase the value of the area."

Sindone estimates the rail projects, once completed and operational, could add another $1.5 billion to the value of the Region's economy.    

Many organizations around the Region have worked behind the scenes to move the rail projects forward. 

Munster-based One Region, an organization working to build up the Region's workforce, is among the groups that have brought people together to support the rail projects and address how improved access to the Chicago area can boost Northwest Indiana's workforce.

"Northwest Indiana has gained momentum by collaborating around the train's and Regional Development Authority's projects that have overall improved our Region's quality of place," said Leah Konrady, president and CEO of One Region. 

She said communities around the Region also have been taking action to improve their quality of place by investing in downtown revitalization, including what's been happening in Griffith and Gary's Miller neighborhood in recent years, and development of recreational amenities. 

Konrady said the Region has more effectively leveraged its proximity to Chicago, which contributed to local efforts to pursue Amazon's second headquarters.

"We must continue to tout our positive attributes (because) we have a lot going for us," she said. "(The Region has) lower cost of living, good schools, access to the lake front and beautiful rural areas."

Pollak said raising awareness of the Region's best selling points can be an effective lure for Millennials, those born after 1980, who are in a stage of life where they are settling down and raising families.

"Quality of place is a popular buzz word now, so when you can show Millennials you're investing in things like faster transportation to Chicago, development of bike trails and green space, these are the kinds of things that are important to them," Pollak said.

Millennials are a mostly educated generation, Pollak said. For years, the Region's young people have been leaving the area for higher paying jobs in the Chicago area and other parts of the country.

To reverse the brain drain, an environment must be established that encourages young people to stay, Pollak said.

"Investing in the rail projects will bridge the gap of getting people to consider living here," he said. Over time as the Region shows it has a healthy base of educated workers, it will help in efforts to lure more high paying jobs to the Region.

"If you don't have the workers, you won't attract businesses," Pollak said. "Right now, young people are going to Chicago because that's where the high paying jobs are; it's why we need higher paying jobs here so we can show college graduates that you can work here and contribute to the local economy and not have to work in Chicago."

Sindone said in addition to stepping up efforts to lure and retain young professionals, the Region and state also have actively been investing in programs to train future generations of workers to take over manufacturing and other skilled trades. He pointed to Gov. Eric Holcomb's recent establishment of the new office of the secretary of career connections and talent, held by former La Porte Mayor Blair Milo. 

"A lot of these skilled trades are in demand today and there is a shortage of people to fill these jobs now," Sindone said. "Leaders have recognized that this is something that needs addressing today and we are starting to see more investment."

Training opportunities and the potential to improve skills to land a better paying job also can be an effective lure to bring in more people to the Region, he said. 

Building for the future

One Region and NWI Forum are actively working on assorted fronts to market Northwest Indiana around the country. 

One Region's Konrady said is wrapping up an initiative that is studying other communities around the country and their respective efforts to attract and retain young professionals. 

She said in 2018 her organization will launch NWI Next Step, an effort to get professionals between the ages of 25 and 40 more involved in developing civic strategies for the Region. 

Ennis said NWI Forum provided its expertise on 40 economic development projects in 2017 and hosted 18 educational and networking events, all in an effort to keep Regional dialogue going. 

She said NWI Forum representatives actively marketed the Region at 17 economic development conferences the past year and have had 127 one-on-one meetings with site selectors and brokers.

"We are well on our way to putting together a stronger regional economic development plan for the Region," Ennis said. "

Karen Lauerman, CEO of the Lake County Economic Alliance, said efforts by her organization are making an impact. Her three-year-old organization serves as a one-stop shop for site selectors and development groups looking for locations in Lake County as well as neighboring communities.

During the alliance's fall networking and economic update event in October, Lauerman said her organization was working on 73 active projects. 

She said if the top 20 of those projects all materialized, it would represent $700 million in new investment and create 8,500 new jobs.

"Our mission is to fill the void that existed in economic development," Lauerman said. "Businesses looking in Lake County now have someone to contact if they want more information about the area, and if someone does contact us, before they leave, we make sure they have a good understanding of what Northwest Indiana has to offer." 

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Business Editor

Larry is the Business Editor of The Times of Northwest Indiana.