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Indiana Secretary of Commerce Victor Smith came to Northwest Indiana Monday for the Indiana Economic Development Corp.'s statewide tour of projects competing for $42 million Regional Cities grants.

Smith and IEDC staff rode the South Shore from Michigan City to Gary, bused along U.S. 12 in Porter and LaPorte counties, stopped at Keith's restaurant in Whiting, and flew along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

Smith said with the state unemployment rate now down to 4.7 percent, the key for more growth will be expanding the state's labor force and convincing young, talented people to remain or move to the region.

"One major barrier we see to this incredible economic growth this state has enjoyed over the last decade -- the policies are working -- but the No.1 inhibitor we have to continued expansion today is people," Smith said, seated at the window of a South Shore double-decker car during a morning ride from Michigan City to Gary.

With Smith on the tour was IEDC President Jim Schellinger and Vice President for Policy and Strategic Initiatives Eric Shields. Hosting them were Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority CEO Bill Hanna and Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District General Manager Michael Noland, along with local economic development officials.

Noland and Hanna explained how the RDA will be submitting an application to put a second set of tracks from Gary to Michigan City, which could dramatically cut train times into Chicago.

Cutting the Michigan City commute to just 60 minutes would make that a viable daily commute, Hanna said. And communities like Portage, Gary and Hammond would become that much more attractive to commuters with shorter trip times and fewer train delays.

"We feel like we are really primed to take advantage of our position as a prime, first-class suburb of Chicago," Hanna told Smith and the others on the bus ride to Michigan City.

The Indiana General Assembly, in its last session, made a total of $84 million available over two years for regional initiatives that improve quality of place. That fulfilled the wishes of IEDC, which had worked for a year to convince legislators and Gov. Mike Pence that Indiana needed their proposed Regional Cities Initiative to make Indiana more competitive.

Regions must first form regional development authorities before being allowed to compete, something they did swiftly once they saw the money available. The region used generic RDA legislation first passed the General Assembly more than a decade ago when the Northwest Indiana RDA was formed.

For a decade, the Northwest Indiana RDA remained the only one in the state.

Smith and IEDC staff have already toured some of the other half dozen regions competing, including projects in north-central and northeast Indiana. Applications are due the end of this month and two regional winners will be picked by year end, with each getting $42 million over two years.

The northeast Indiana project has downtown Fort Wayne as a key component, where the city has gone from trying to protect itself from the three rivers that flow there to embracing them as key to the city's quality of place, Smith said.

The north-central plan is notable in the way it spans three counties and numerous cities, with the University of Notre Dame a key to quality of place in South Bend.

"This is all to encourage collaboration," Smith said. "This isn't about one ZIP code, it's about regions."

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