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The Greater South Shore Initiative: Building the next 100 years

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Thomas Keon

Thomas Keon

What will Northwest Indiana look like in 50 years? 100 years? The Greater South Shore Initiative (GSSI) is planning for our economic future focusing on business development, housing, and our overall quality of life.

The GSSI was born from the once-in-a-generation public investment in expanding and improving the South Shore Line, which will greatly reduce the travel time to and from Chicago across northern Indiana and extend commuter rail service south from Hammond to Dyer. To make the most of this $1.5 billion investment, communities spanning the 90-mile corridor from south Chicago to South Bend must work collaboratively to plan and promote the type of development that will effectively use the South Shore’s upgraded infrastructure to attract new types of industries and workers — industries and workers that will be as critical to our success in the next 100 years as steel and oil have been for the last century.

A steering committee comprised of economic and community leaders from Chicago to South Bend is working with a truly world-class team of developers, urban planners, architects, engineers and public finance experts skilled in large-scale, multijurisdictional projects. A planning grant from the Mansueto Foundation was awarded to start the process last year, which has now completed its first phase. The next phase will create a master development plan for the entire 90-mile corridor, leading to a final phase. In the final phase, the project team will be speaking with investors and developers across the nation about the entire project. Throughout all phases, we know that discussions will take place across NWI to examine the ways in which our communities can best benefit from this new investment in the South Shore Line as a guide to the future of our regional economy and physical environment.

Physically, we know that transit-oriented development is a strategy that will expand opportunities for people to live in NWI and work in Chicago. However, as each community considers how to build and develop around the train stations, should the stations and their surrounding development look and feel the same? Should they all be different? Should they be shaped by their unique, local environments? These are examples of the kinds of questions the GSSI process will answer.

Economically, we need to think long-term about what types of industries are likely to be most successful in NWI. As time goes on, NWI’s economy will likely diversify, moving from heavy industry (steel, oil, and gas) to advanced manufacturing (e.g., electric and autonomous vehicle components), cybersecurity, and next-wave telecommunications (especially with new high-speed fiber access in development across the whole GSSI corridor). While we will always have our historically important industries, we must also look toward expansion into other areas to ensure we have the right mix of job opportunities that will attract and keep our talented citizens here.

An often-cited disadvantage of NWI is the lack of talent to draw new high-growth industries (the proverbial “brain drain”). Many times, our young talent heads downstate to school for a traditional, residential university experience. When they complete their studies, they often do not return to NWI. This is due, in part, to a lack of quality jobs that would entice them home. Of course, some college graduates will want to expand their horizons and go elsewhere; however, many others would likely return to the Region to be near family and friends if the Region offered the kinds of career opportunities they’re seeking. Look, for example, at the young talent that have returned or stayed in NWI because their families own successful businesses. My casual observation is that many of the next generation in our region-owned and operated businesses do not settle elsewhere, but rather return to NWI to live and work (even if they go away to college). Why? Because a great long-term career path awaits them upon graduation. Thus, if others could find quality jobs with long-term career potential, they too would be more likely to return to NWI.

We have a great need to build a more diverse and future-oriented economy in NWI. While many may work in Chicago, taking advantage of the faster South Shore Line, why not begin to develop options here in NWI? Think of the countless thousands of people from across the globe that came here to work in the steel mills … if we are successful in establishing new high-growth industry clusters here, we could end the brain drain and would see a flow of people relocating here for the career opportunities of the future.

The GSSI will also strongly emphasize quality of place. We have plenty of great places to live in NWI, but still much room for improvement. For example, losing the Star Plaza Theater with no replacement left a great void for entertainment. Even in its heyday, we still lacked a large enough venue for bigger concerts, trade shows, sporting events, and other forms of entertainment. So, the GSSI will also address elements critical to improving the “live” and “play” spaces – not only “work.”

Thanks to the NWI Forum’s successful $50 million READI grant application, we expect to secure funding for the next phase of the project, which should commence later this summer. Purdue Northwest is proud to serve as the host organization for GSSI. As a public, metropolitan university, our goal is the successful growth and development of our entire service area, which allows us in many ways to be a neutral party to facilitate projects and discussions between different entities — absolutely essential when attempting a project like the GSSI.

I’ll leave you with a few questions to ponder. What would you like to see NWI look like in five, 10, 25 or 100 years? What kinds of jobs, housing, educational opportunities, and amenities do you think your children and their children will seek? Finally, and perhaps most importantly, how do we stay grounded in our celebrated history while ignoring the future through our inaction today? Through GSSI, we’ll be exploring these questions and others as we together shape the future of our great Region.

Thomas Keon is the chancellor of Purdue University Northwest and the vice-chair of the One Region Board of Directors. The opinions are the writer's.

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