An autumn trip to New Jersey offered a group of local public officials, business people and nonprofit leaders a look at strategies that can help attract new residents to established communities.
The group of nearly 30 toured Newark, Jersey City, Hoboken, Asbury Park and Trenton, visiting downtown developments, repurposed industrial sites and transformed buildings designed with an eye toward "quality of place."
"What we saw across the board was collaboration to invest in place-making," said Leah Konrady, who organized the October trip as president and CEO of One Region.
Government, businesses large and small, educational institutions and community groups were all involved in their city's effort.
"There are strong parallels between New Jersey and Northwest Indiana," she said. "In terms of place-making, we have something to learn from them."
"They're all on the same page," Horizon Bank President and CEO Craig Dwight said. He noted partnerships with universities as particularly important, both in terms of locating their own operations in redeveloping areas, and in creating strategies for revitalization.
Dwight also mentioned tools that can help local communities, including New Jersey's "spot blight" eminent domain law, which not only speeds the purchase of abandoned properties, but allows the cost of rehabiltation or redevelopment to be subtracted from the property value.
Among the similarities between the New Jersey communities and Northwest Indiana are proximity to major cities and extensive waterfronts.
Dwight said establishing development zones around train stations added credence to local plans for South Shore Line projects.
"After seeing New Jersey, it supports their plan even moreso," he said of the railroad's expansion.
State Rep. Earl Harris Jr., D-East Chicago, said Asbury Park showed how to make the most of a seaside location.
"The lakefront to me is just a huge benefit," he said of Northwest Indiana's geography. "That's going to be a huge draw."
The New Jersey city's connection to New York was seen as similar to Northwest Indiana's link to Chicago. When it comes to drawing residents from the neighboring state, "I think we are in a position just like the cities in New Jersey," Smith said.
He also noted local companies — like Amazon-owned Audible Inc. in Newark — can draw residents.
That company, which produces audio books, has invested in Newark in part because of a new focus on education and arts, said Sherri Ziller, chief operating officer of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.
"The arts and culture — they really emphasized that," Ziller said. "It was one of the main reasons they located there."
The panel with Audible executives was held in the Hahne building, former home of a department store that sat vacant for three decades. It now is home to apartments, a Rutgers University arts incubator and other businesses.
Ziller said the communities have also adapted their strategies as they've gone along. Once they saw success in attracting millennials, "the issue is getting them to stay," Ziller said.
Promoting the development of more three-bedroom apartments was one way to do that. "They just changed their housing stock a little," Ziller said.
The Northwest Indiana delegation said they received a positive reaction to the regional diversity of their group.
"They're competing against each other," Dwight said of the New Jersey municipalities. "We had all the communities at the table. That impressed them."
One Region intends to take similar trips, dubbed "benchmark tours," to Pittsburgh and Denver during the next two years.