One of the greatest advantages that Northwest Indiana has over other parts of the country is that we already realize we are, indeed, a region. We joke about “Da Region” and “region rats” and use other regional references, but stop and think about how remarkable this is: we are grounded as a region not just by our geography but by the actual language we use. Unlike most other regions in the U.S., we have no one dominant city that overshadows all the others, around which all the other communities revolve. We already realize we sink or swim together. And that gives us a ridiculous advantage over other places.
NIRPC has a governing board of 53 elected officials from every community in the region. That may seem like a lot to get on common ground, but notice this: not once have I heard any of those representatives talk about succeeding at the expense of their neighbors.
From the occasional cynical comment I hear from folks who aren’t really involved in moving the region forward, you might think the region is still a bunch of individual fiefdoms. Even if that were true once upon a time, it’s not true now.
People are also reading…
NIRPC has been bringing communities together at a common table since the mid-sixties. Some plans and programs have taken a very long time to materialize. But as you read this now, you are in the region in a near-unbelievable time of things finally coming together — many of which you are probably reading about in the pages of the Progress Edition you currently hold.
These things haven’t happened by circumstance. They are happening because the region has come together, seized opportunities, and — true to our manufacturing history on these southern shores of Lake Michigan — we have worked together to make things happen.
The pandemic forced us to shift some of the ways we do things, but the region has proved itself resilient. In the fall of last year, NIRPC assembled a team of economic leaders from across the region in the areas of workforce, education, small business, etc. to develop the Northwest Indiana Economic Recovery & Resilience Plan. This strategic guide, with attainable action steps in the areas of Infrastructure, Talent & Workforce, and Business Vitality, builds on the momentum of 2018’s Ignite the Region: A Regional Strategy for Economic Transformation to learn from the economic challenges of COVID-19 and shore up the region’s economic resiliency for future unforeseen events.
Even now the communities of Northwest Indiana are collaborating on the next iteration of NWI 2050, the long-range transportation plan for the region of Lake, Porter, and LaPorte counties. With input from those who live here — including hopes and concerns communicated via online mapping — teams are diving into the complexities of our region related to Active Transportation, Freight, Land Use, and Transit.
NWI 2050+ will be completed mid-year and will meet requirements needed to keep federal transportation funding flowing to our region in order to preserve our existing transportation systems; increase the safety of all transportation system users, rather than just increasing the speed of cars and trucks; connect people to jobs, educational opportunities, shopping, and recreation; and ensure the efficient movement of freight to support the economy of the region.
These plans, of course, mean nothing if those making actual on-the-ground development decisions approve projects that do not take into account the long-term effects of those decisions. Recognizing the need for practical help in local decisions that can add up to big-scale regional impact, NIRPC will soon be releasing its Sensible Tools Handbook+: Best Practices for a Changing Landscape — a follow-up to its 2007 Sensible Tools Handbook. This practical guide will help equip public officials and those appointed to plan commissions and boards of zoning appeals, as well professionals and citizens, with practical and useful tools to apply the principles of good planning to local decision making.
All of this recognizes that no decision made in this region happens in a vacuum. The choices each community makes has an impact on surrounding communities, and it is only in conversing around a common regional table that we can stay on track for future success as a region that is connected, renewed, united, and vibrant. These four descriptors as a vision for the region in the next 25 years grew directly from the multiple regional conversations held in the creation of NWI 2050. From our regional vantage point at NIRPC, things do appear to be aligning to make that vision a reality.
Earlier this year I presented a bit of the Northwest Indiana story to a gathering of other regional councils from across the country meeting in Washington, D.C. Focusing mainly on the history of the Indiana Dunes National Park and the Indiana Dunes State Park, I was able to tell a story of collaboration on multiple scales: as a collaboration of federal, state and local government; as a collaboration across state lines; and, ultimately, as a collaboration between industry and the environment. The unsolicited comments I received following that short talk ranged from “I had no idea!” to “such an inspiring story!” with multiple variations of “I am definitely going to make a side trip to the Dunes next time I come to Chicago!” I didn’t embellish a thing; all I did was to literally just tell the story of what happened here.
The truth is, collaboration is inspiring. And that history of collaboration is now deeply embedded in the regional landscape.
But that’s a different story than the one told by the billboards that clutter the Interstate routes through our region. The bulk of these parasitic signs portray a very different image of Northwest Indiana than those that live here know to be true, and they point away from the aspects of our region that we know to be good. We see them so much that we stop seeing them. But for those that hurry through Northwest Indiana, this is the takeaway from their brief time with us.
We have an opportunity to change the story we tell as we are capitalizing on opportunities afforded by recent investments in infrastructure and other quality-of-place enhancements. That opportunity — some may call it a responsibility — is not left to those elected, appointed, or hired to public office or service. Every resident living in Northwest Indiana and everyone doing business within our region has daily interactions where one or the other of these very different stories will be reinforced. These conversations may seem like small things, but they, too, add up to have huge regional impacts. Regional collaboration may seem a small thing, but it is truly the future success of our region.
Ty Warner AICP is the Executive Director of the Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC), www.nirpc.org.