As president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority, Bill Hanna is at the forefront of planning for the financing of the South Shore Line's West Lake Corridor and Double Track NWI projects, and in preparing for transit-oriented development expected to come with the projects. The RDA also continues to be active in Lake Michigan shoreline improvements and other economic development activities in Northwest Indiana.
Q: The South Shore projects are premised on the receipt of federal grants to pay half their costs. With state and local financing pledged, where do things stand with the federal components?
A: Because of what the state did and also because of the local communities stepping up to help finance our obligation when seeking a federal match, we’ve done everything we can to position Indiana as competitively as we can in this federal process. That’s really what our job is. We’re working very closely with the congressional delegation; they’re working very hard to make sure the funds are available for the federal match.
From a state perspective and a regional perspective, our job was to deliver something that had solid finance behind it and distinguishes Indiana’s offerings when the federal government is considering a number of applicants.
Q: How has the potential for transit-oriented development, or TOD, factored into the process?
A: These transportation development zones that exist around the nine stations — that part of the equation, being factored in from day one — are a major distinction for Indiana’s offerings. And it really tailors very well into what the president has been proposing in terms of an infrastructure plan. If you read that document throughout, you can see that "value capture,” which we have, is a huge component, and that private investment and leverage is a huge component, which is part of our program since day one.
I think we’re ahead of most places that are competing for federal dollars, in the sense of having a more comprehensive approach to private development, so I think we’re in a good spot there.
Q: Why was commuter rail improvement and TOD determined to be the best economic development engine for Northwest Indiana?
A: The primary thing that you look at with TOD is, what is the end-point, and how does that help dictate value for your local development? For us, fortunately, the end-point is the third-largest economy in the country in Chicago. And so if you look at an offering at a Miller station, or a Munster, or a Michigan City or South Bend, commuting time-to-market is going to influence the value within the development zone.
They are in a complete symbiotic relationship, so the more that you're investing in the capital side to shorten that time-to-market, the higher the value that TOD is going to be able to achieve.
That leads you to, where do you orient economic development activity going forward? There are a few different ways to do that. One traditional way is to attract new companies that would help diversify the market, but would also provide jobs that would use similar skill sets to the ones you had. That continues to be a fundamental economic development approach that’s really important, especially in the short term.
But what’s changing about economic development is they’re recognizing that when you're next to a large urban center, the way to really efficiently diversify your employment opportunities is to connect more directly to that place of employment. There are as many jobs in the Loop as there are in the entire state of Indiana.
Q: Why is that focus only emerging now?
A: We had it really good for a long time, with industry, so I think there is a lag, in Northwest Indiana, compared with the north and west suburbs, in saying we need to be looking at Chicago to help diversify our economy. Not just bringing companies over, not just depending on the steel industry and BP and others. We may have been slower to the game with respect to that, because we had it so good for so long.
This is a really exciting time. There are things that ebb and flow in the Chicago market, but ultimately, it’s a global city-state. Although there have been ups and downs in the city’s progress, by and large Chicago, in the long run, economically, has been a very fruitful investment for a lot of the suburbs.
You’ve seen disproportionate growth and wealth concentration, as compared to us, in the north and west suburbs. What we're seeing now is that those areas have gotten very expensive, and almost unattainable for people who want to start a family.
We’re seeing a lot of interest in communities around here. You can see a lot of growth in southern Lake County, for instance, and some of the more greenfield spaces are starting to get some early investment in housing and so forth.
Q: What challenges does Northwest Indiana face in managing development?
A: I think one of our challenges is going to be to try to help manage the quality of it, consider what the long-term impact of that is, and not lose focus on what’s happening in our local communities.
The timing of the execution of these things is very important, so we don’t just get consumed with what the market will give us, that we’re actually able to steer our own destiny, to see all of the communities get some sort of benefit and reposition themselves economically when there’s an opportunity to do so.
One of the reasons we were really aggressive about promoting transportation connectivity is that, in a market like Chicago, there's interest in every rung of the housing ladder. That connectivity, for an urban redevelopment zone, becomes extremely important, and so if you’re doing that at the same time you're seeing this market growth being pushed across the border, it offers you a chance to provide some parity in redevelopment, and I think that’s important. You want to see a rising tide lift all boats.
The encouraging thing about this modern real estate market and what people want, in terms of ease of access and other things, is that the urban redevelopment projects have been pretty popular nationally.
You're talking about filling out your offerings in the market, so that you can play at the same table as your competitors. If you look at where the development goes in a city — most of the time it’s going have a train station nearby. These are just fundamental pieces, that if you want to be competitive, you have to have.