MERRILLVILLE — The Hoosier State is poised for tremendous economic and population growth in the years ahead, and Northwest Indiana very well may be positioned to benefit more than any other region.

That's the message Gov. Eric Holcomb and U.S. Sen. Todd Young shared Tuesday at Merrillville's Avalon Manor Banquet Center with some 500 Region commerce and community leaders at the 2019 induction ceremony for the Northwest Indiana Business and Industry Hall of Fame, sponsored by The Times Media Co.

The Republican officials pointed to pending federal funding for South Shore Line expansion projects, the recent renaming of the Indiana Dunes National Park, possible tax hikes on high-earners and businesses in Illinois, and even the relocation of the Gary casino and possible redevelopment of Buffington Harbor as signs that, as Holcomb put it, "Indiana is on a roll."

"We are marketing the state of Indiana like never before — and it's working. That's why we're an in-migration state," Holcomb said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Indiana's population last year grew by 31,796 residents, a 0.48% increase compared to 2017. In comparison, Illinois lost 45,116 residents in 2018, more than any state except New York.

Holcomb said Indiana, in partnership with local communities, soon will step up its efforts to lure new residents across the state line from Illinois, which he said is sending the wrong message to entrepreneurs by contemplating income tax hikes instead of right-sizing spending.

"There are a lot of people that are 'Illinoyed' at this time. It's getting worse," Holcomb said. "When you're just above junk bond status as your state's credit rating, you better start addressing the systemic needs of your state."

In contrast, Holcomb said due to Indiana's fiscal prudence the state last month was able to increase, on short notice, its investment in the South Shore Line's West Lake expansion and Double-Track projects that ultimately will make it easier for Region residents to commute to high-paying Chicago jobs.

"You're either growing or dying, as a business or as a state, and we've got to attract and keep more talent here," he said.

Young said he's working in Washington to get the message out that Indiana is a model for other states and the federal government to emulate. That's an impression he hopes will lead to additional funding for Region projects and fewer regulations to inhibit business growth.

For example, Young said the recent renaming of the Dunes as a national park appropriately elevates its stature, will help attract more visitors, fill more local hotel rooms and ultimately create jobs and business opportunities throughout Northwest Indiana.

"It's not a panacea for all of our needs or interests up here, but it certainly will be a nice complement to other things," Young said.

Chris White, publisher at The Times Media Co., said it's clear "the Region is better positioned than ever for economic and population growth."

"The work that is being done now will serve to improve the quality of life for generations here in Northwest Indiana, and will make this a better place to live, and work and play — something we can all appreciate."

The conversation between Young and Holcomb was moderated by Marc Chase, editor of The Times, who also asked both men about their support for Young's initiative to raise the nationwide minimum smoking and vaping age to 21 from 18.

"We have a national epidemic on our hands," Young said. "Nineteen out of 20 smokers began before the age of 21. So the real trick here is to just cut significantly into that pre-age 21 smoking demographic, and the best way you can do that, according to public health experts, is by raising the age of purchase."

Holcomb said he's supporting Young's proposal in the U.S. Senate after a similar measure failed to advance this year in the Republican-controlled Indiana General Assembly.

"Prevention efforts are critically important," Holcomb said. "It's hard for people to stay on the road to recovery. So if you can keep them off that road to addiction, all the better."

Holcomb and Young also praised former U.S. Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., who died April 28, as a great Hoosier leader.

"He was a giant of the Senate," Young said. "He was regarded as such by many of his friends and colleagues during his lifetime, which is quite a statement in an assembly of sometimes prima donnas."