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Duane Hayden, the Gary/Chicago International Airport's new executive director, speaks Thursday at an "Unlocking Potential in the Region" public forum, held at the airport. 

GARY — Community leaders on Thursday pitched the Region as a lower-cost alternative to Chicago with fewer taxes and regulations while noting the area has its challenges in recruiting young professionals and cultivating skilled workers. 

State Rep. Earl Harris Jr., D-East Chicago, said he couldn't have picked a more opportune location to host his "Unlocking Potential in the Region" public forum —  the Gary/Chicago International Airport.

"This airport is one of the shining stars" of Northwest Indiana, he said. 

Duane Hayden, the Gary/Chicago International Airport's new executive director, said with its newest hangar, extended runway and Jet Center, the airport is setting the stage to excel as an economic engine for the Region.

More infrastructure improvements are needed, however, to enhance its marketability for cargo, corporate flying and general aviation. 

Hayden was among five speakers who participated in Thursday's event.

Others included Kevin Brinegar, president and CEO of the Indiana Chamber of Commerce; R. Louie Gonzalez, Lake County campus chancellor for Ivy Tech; Leah Konrady, president and CEO of One Region; and Stephen Mays, chairman for the Gary/Chicago International Airport Authority. 

Konrady said one great example of a community investing in regional tourism is the city of Whiting, which brought in the Whoa Zone floating water park and is working to build a Mascot Hall of Fame. 

Brinegar said a push to designate the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore as a national park "will go a long way" in attracting tourists to Northwest Indiana. 

He said the West Lake Corridor extension and double track expansion between Gary and Michigan City are prime examples of ways to attract families to the area. 

Both Gonzales and Brinegar, however, also warned the Region will lose out if governments and schools fail to collaborate with business in recruiting and training highly skilled workers. 

"What we don't want to see is all these good things we've done to build our tax climate, our business climate, our infrastructure, our efficient workers comp system," Brinegar said, "... we don't want to see all of that overshadowed by the inability of employers to find skilled workers."

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Northlake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.