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Northwest Indiana's economic performance remained largely flat in March, but observers are taking heart in gains in individual business sectors and overall in the last 12 months.

"The good news is if we look back six months or a year, we are much better off than we were," said Micah Pollak, an assistant professor of economics at Indiana University Northwest.

Employment in Northwest Indiana has lagged behind other economic indicators ever since the recession ended, but in March the regional economy added 1,700 jobs. That is a hopeful sign considering Northwest Indiana still has fewer jobs than it did before the recession started.

"The No. 1 employer here is steel," Pollak said. "With the steel industry, their production has gone up but not their employment. They can produce as much steel as they did in 2007 without adding workers."

The NWI Index, which takes account of steel and other business sectors to take the pulse of the our local economy, was unchanged in March from February, yielding a flat reading of 135.

The index was formulated last year by IU Northwest Professor of Finance Bala Arshanapalli and Emeritus Professor of Economics Donald Coffin. It uses nine economic indicators in all, some local and some national, to gauge the status of the local economy.

The March boost in employment and a significant bump up in the transportation component of the NWI Index in March were not enough to overcome decreases in retail sales, the home market and steel production.

All three of those have generally been yielding positive results in the last half year. The housing market component of the index in particular has powered upward. Even with March's slight decline, it is now 57 percent higher than one year ago.

Randy Palmateer, business manager for the Northwest Indiana Building & Construction Trades Council, said large industrial projects have kept employment strong for the council's union workforce, which should help produce job growth overall.

The massive $3.8 billion BP refinery project is the prime example, but work at NIPSCO power plants, the Port of Indiana and steel mills have also kept construction employment strong.

And now commercial construction is finally rebounding. Palmateer gave examples such as the Dawn Foods distribution center now under construction in Merrillville and an Aunt Millie's Bakeries distribution facility also planned for the town as just two examples of projects that will help fill any holes as the BP refinery project winds down.

"My industrial stuff is still holding," Palmateer said. "And then on the other end the commercial stuff is starting to pop."

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