Lake County rises on broad back of industry

2012-02-26T00:00:00Z 2012-02-26T09:37:13Z Lake County rises on broad back of industryBy Keith Benman, (219) 933-3326
February 26, 2012 12:00 am  • 

Steelmakers, the BP refinery, the Indiana Department of Transportation and local communities boosted by the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority all had the building bug in 2011, undertaking billions of dollars in construction projects.

Those major construction projects, along with companies relocating from Illinois to Indiana, are setting the stage for the next leap forward in Lake County's economy, according to local leaders.

"The short-term effect is lots of construction jobs and the ripple effect that creates in our economy," said Mark Maassel, CEO of the Northwest Indiana Forum. "That is just gigantic. But just as well, it is the sense of optimism and excitement that comes out of people having jobs and knowing they will have jobs for awhile."

The BP Whiting refinery's $3.8 billion expansion, started three years ago, is now just one among a number of large industrial projects under way in Lake County.

The BP project employs thousands of construction workers now and will employ about 7,000 at its peak this year. Up to 900 will be employed at the $510 million scrubber installation at NIPSCO's R.M. Schahfer Generating Station in Wheatfield by this summer. Hundreds more are at work at a $63.2 million energy efficiency project at ArcelorMittal's Indiana Harbor integrated steel mill and a $220 million substitute coke project at U.S. Steel's Gary Works.

And after a dry spell that stretched more than a decade, Lake County has begun to lure the kind of new high-wage employers it has long sought.

The first came in August, when Canadian National Railway Co. announced it would move its locomotive repair facility from Markham, Ill., to Kirk Yard in Gary. That move along with other upgrades will bring $165 million in investment and 251 jobs to Gary.

Just three weeks later, Modern Forge Cos. announced it would move its Blue Island, Ill., manufacturing facility to Merrillville, bringing $17 million in investment and 250 jobs.

A key player in scoring both those wins for Lake County and the state was the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority. The RDA provided $4 million from its  "gap closing fund" for infrastructure improvements for the CN project and another $2 million for Modern Forge.

The fund, established in 2011, is designed to close the gap when economic incentive offers here don't measure up to those offered by other states, according to RDA Chairman Leigh Morris.

"And that's exactly what we did in the case of both CN and Modern Forge," Morris said.

The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority marked its sixth year in business in 2011, with no letup in its traditional role of providing seed money for public works projects.

In May, ground was broken for the $153 million runway expansion at Gary/Chicago International Airport. The RDA has committed $50.3 million to the project, making it the second-largest contributor behind the Federal Aviation Administration.

The project suffered years of delays but a number of hurdles were overcome in 2011 due to closer cooperation between the RDA and airport authority.

"Now we have top staff members and board members from both organizations working together and agreeing on what needs to be done," Morris said.

Allegiant Air has committed to starting up flights at the Gary airport in February. Airport officials hope many other airlines will follow once the expansion project is finished.

Ground was broken on the restoration of historic Marquette Park in Gary in April 2011. The RDA is contributing $28.2 million there. Altogether the RDA has committed $118.2 million to lakefront park projects in Lake and Porter counties.

Tying all the new Lake County development together is a massive public works project at its beating heart. The $189 million Interstate 65 interchange project and the even larger Borman Expressway lane expansion wrapped up in August, marking the end of an almost decade-long project.

Four months later, Gov. Mitch Daniels came to Gary/Chicago International Airport to celebrate completion of the $250 million Indiana Toll Road lane expansion through Gary. It is the Toll Road's busiest section and was badly in need of repair.

The expansion is part of $350 million in improvements undertaken by private operator Indiana Toll Road Concession Co. since 2006, when it paid the state $3.8 billion for a 75-year lease of the road.

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