It was more than a decade ago on the shores of Tiburon when T. Clifford Fleming had an epiphany as he watched sailboats lazily bobbing across the sweeping panorama of San Francisco Bay with its amazing view of the city skyline.
While many could not imagine a more magical place, Fleming had a revelation that today still guides him and continues to serve as a beacon for economic development.
"I had an opportunity to move to California," says the Gary native and Burns Harbor resident. "I sat on the bay looking at the landscape and realized it's about the people—not the place. I decided to come home and create an environment that would enable our children who are leaving our cities in droves to stay.
“We need to create communities that allow our kids to get educated and get a job which would attract the skill sets that would induce the ‘players’ to come here. We need to enhance the image of Northwest Indiana so it can become all it can be. That has been my mission ever since then."
Fleming, an attorney, has had a 40-year career developing communities and improving the quality of life in the region. He created The Village of Burns Harbor, the first certified green residential neighborhoods in the country, which earned him the Small Business Development Center Lifetime Achievement Award.
Leigh Morris, former Chairman of the Regional Development Authority as well as former Senior Vice President for the Indiana Economic Development Corporation, sees Burns Harbor as a welcoming gateway into the heart of Porter and Lake counties, whose premier locations offer easy access to the best the South shore of Lake Michigan has to offer.
“Necessity becomes the mother of invention and the bankruptcy of Bethlehem Steel and its impact on Burns Harbor was a wakeup call,” says Morris. “It brought attention to the fact that there’s a lot of potential here that wasn’t just dependent upon the steel mills.”
Burns Harbor grew at the third-fastest pace in Indiana over the last three years, according to the Indiana Business Research Center's Stats Indiana. Fleming says while efforts there are noteworthy his objective is to raise the bar of how people think of Northwest Indiana.
Another landmark effort Fleming says can replicated in any community is the groundbreaking agreement between the town and the Duneland School Corporation to share a portion of annual Tax Increment Financing (TIF) revenue.
According to the town's Redevelopment Commission (RDC) up to 15 percent of the allocated tax revenues of the Burns Harbor TIF district, or an estimated $84,360 each year for 10 years, will be distributed to Duneland schools. The agreement will automatically renew in additional five-year terms, if necessary.
“It’s progressive for small community like ours to be passing through a portion of the TIF revenue because frankly our businesses can use every dollar they can gain,” says Jeff Freeze, Town Council Vice President as well as President of the town’s Advisory Plan Commission. “It shows the importance of education to us and makes sure the schools stay as close to whole as possible. i think it’s a good thing and a model other communities will follow.”
Morris characterizes the agreement as innovative and collaborative. “It shows creativity,” he says “And it isn’t a ‘straight-line all for me’ approach. It’s looking at what is going to benefit that community.”
Breathing life into yet another community initiative, the RDC and the town are seeking to bring in movie-star quality urban planners to drive the transformation of the community on the water's edge of Lake Michigan.
“The developers are calling us,” says Fleming. "These are the Brad Pitts and George Cloonies of their industry. When these kind of people think Northwest Indiana is something worth looking at, that says a lot." The winning contract will be awarded in January 2015.
The effort hopes to align assets, increase tax base, incentivize entrepreneurial investments and strengthen existing businesses. The goal is to induce businesses with good-paying jobs to located within the town to improve business profitability and quality of life.
Among the candidates is the Miami-based urban planning and architecture firm of Duany Plater-Zyberk and Company (DPZ) which has crafted plans for over 300 revitalization projects throughout the world. The firm has been honored with numerous national and international awards.
Also in the mix is the Montreal-based firm of LiveWorkLearnPlay which is an international real estate development firm which is known for its iconic and thriving mixed-use neighborhoods. Max Reim is its co-managing partner and principal. The firm has 80 years of combined experience in nine countries.
Freeze says he hopes to involve its large corporate neighbors and other businesses. “It’s important to recognize we have the national lakeshore running through part of our town so how we blend the environment with industry and residential is a big challenge but it can be done,” he says.
“Burns Harbor can no longer be the rural outpost it once was. Portage and Chesterton are growing and the Chicago suburbs are expanding to include Northwest Indiana. The South Shore Line allows people to live here with a better quality of life and lower cost of living. We can’t stop the progress taking place but we can manage it and be smart about it.”
Morris admires community leaders who have an eye on the long-term future of Northwest Indiana. “They are looking for outside expertise to come up with the best ideas of how Burns Harbor can evolve into that community of the future,” says Morris.
“It’s got a distinguished past but the future is more exciting. I believe Northwest Indiana is part of the greater Chicago and Southeast Wisconsin mega-region. The more we can demonstrate there is leadership and creativity the stronger our partnerships. We have terrific potential.”