County is building on strong economic base

2012-03-04T00:00:00Z County is building on strong economic baseBy Bob Kasarda bob.kasarda@nwi.com, (219) 548-4345 nwitimes.com

VALPARAISO | Porter County Councilman Jeremy Rivas, D-2nd, hopes the county's decision to once again take an active role in the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority will pay off in a big way.

The county already has more than recouped the money invested in the regional group and stands to benefit further as more emphasis is placed both regionally and locally on economic development.

"I think that's a step in the right direction," he said.

Porter County Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, agreed.

"If One Region, One Vision is to work, everyone has to participate," he said.

Porter County Council President Dan Whitten, D-At-large, said he continues to feel pretty good about the strong fiscal shape the county is in, despite the financially turbulent last few years.

The county is still sitting on the $161 million in proceeds from the sale of the county hospital and only recently began dipping into the interest money generated on that principal, he said. The council also has resisted calls to increase the local income tax and has held the line on spending.

"This has been a fiscally conservative county," Whitten said. "Our solvency shows that."

Yet the county is investing in its future with such efforts as the drainage improvement work under way in South Haven, which is part of a massive $20 million, countywide plan, Evans said.

The county also has invested in its geographic information system, which is an aerial map layered with a variety of information, including drainage, taxes, zoning, voter districts and the location of septics.

Commissioners also began revamping the county's troubled E911 system by hiring a new director and additional dispatchers, while freeing up $4 million in "excess levy" funds as a short-term fix for the program's ongoing budget shortfall.

Evans also unveiled a plan recently to spend $75,000 in local income tax money to help fund a countywide effort to drive economic development and create jobs.

Porter County is already better off than other areas of the state and nation with an unemployment rate of 7.9 percent, he said.

More than 100 new jobs are being created with the opening later this year of the new $225 million, 225-private room Porter hospital at the northwest corner of Ind. 49 and U.S. 6.

The hospital already has attracted a 109-acre development immediately to its west. The residential site was rezoned to allow for high-intensity commercial zoning adjacent to U.S. 6, office and technology zoning a little farther to the north, and multiple and two-family residential zoning at the far north end.

A big leap was taken the past year on constructing an ambitious project to create a contiguous trail from the Indiana Dunes State Park south to the Kankakee River.

Bridges along Ind. 49 over U.S. 12 and U.S. 20 were replaced with wider versions to accompany the trail, said Lorelei Weimer, executive director of the Porter County Convention, Recreation and Visitor Commission.

The goal is to extend the trail south to the Indiana Dunes visitor's center by the year's end, she said. Chesterton and Valparaiso are studying what routes the trail will take when it reaches those communities, she said.

The PCCRVC also teamed up with several other counties from across the northern section of the state to produce a much better website than any could have done on their own, Weimer said.

The bureau is teaming up with local businesses this year as part of a shared billboard program, she said. Each of the seven businesses are being given $1,000 and design services to come up with billboards that will carry the tourism logo.

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