By PAULENE POPARAD
“To my assessment there wasn’t much holding back,” said John
Swanson at the conclusion of Saturday’s forum that
sought to paint in broad strokes a vision for a better Northwest Indiana in
As executive director of the Northwestern Indiana Regional
Planning Commission, which sponsored the day-long Merrillville event,
Swanson wanted candor from the nearly 500 participants, who accommodated by
prioritizing high-quality education as a means to better jobs and better
quality of life; greener, pedestrian-friendly communities linked by an
integrated transportation network; and streamlined, responsive, accountable
government to deliver needed services.
Those participating --- a cross section of the region that
closely mirrored its demographic profiles as to age, race, gender, residence
and earnings --- each used small, wireless keypad polling cards to register
preferences and priorities that were ranked electronically and displayed
It will take two years to develop a draft 2040 plan, which
will update the current 2030 regional transportation plan for Lake, Porter
and LaPorte counties. Additional input meetings in each county are slated
for February, and the results of the forum will be posted this week at
With Northwest Indiana’s economic base shifting from
manufacturing to the service sector including healthcare, banking and
hospitality, the need for education/retraining and economic development
consistently was reflected in many of the concerns expressed Saturday.
Transportation, land use and the environment also provided
the framework for animated morning discussions between the eight to ten
people at each assigned table. In the afternoon, all participants traded
tables based on their specific topics of interest; written table
recommendations were collated by Theme Team volunteers, condensed and
displayed for keypad voting again in search of how best to address
opportunities and challenges ahead.
Often, a single topic proved to be both. While easy access to
major interstate highways was cited as an opportunity, the need to address
gridlock on them in 2040 will be a challenge. Likewise, the opportunity to
develop/redevelop areas along the Lake Michigan shoreline will face
challenges to maintain its public access and environmental uniqueness.
Two early challenges identified were unaccountable,
inefficient local and county governments as well as an inadequate,
underfunded transportation system. Saturday’s forum was the first of seven
steps toward a 2040 plan with broad topics, not specific implementation
options or funding solutions, addressed at this time.
Other challenges cited for the region were poor school
performance, not enough good jobs here (one in five workers must find a job
outside the region); racism and economic disparity (nearly one in three
residents is a member of a minority population); the need to address urban
sprawl (95 square miles of land were developed in the last 10 years)
and even the perception that Northwest Indiana isn’t taken seriously
Key opportunities identified were building our transportation
systems, particularly commuter rail and bus, perhaps under a unified
authority. Also, expansion of the Gary/Chicago Airport, shifting from an
industrial region to a vacation region, using the proximity of Chicago’s
possible 2016 Olympics as an opportunity for economic development and
infrastructure improvements, greater collaboration between local
governments, and encouraging local universities to drive innovation and
train tomorrow’s workforce.
Event organizers asked that every topic be viewed with an eye
toward social equity, an understanding that both the benefits and adverse
consequences of planning decisions (parks/landfills) should be fairly
distributed in a way that equalizes the impacts on wealthy and poor
Meg Haller of the Northwest Indiana Quality of Life Council
told those assembled, “I have no clue exactly what the future will look
like. It’s not my job or any so-called expert to paint the future. That’s
your job.” Haller urged participants to balance competing needs, respect
other communities’ efforts to be sustainable, overcome the limitations of
invisible fences, and simultaneously consider today and tomorrow.
As the forum began, initial polling showed 59 percent of the
participants were somewhat positive about the future of Northwest Indiana,
19 percent not particularly hopeful and 15 percent very positive and hopeful
--- generally less enthusiastic than they were about the nation as a whole.
Seven percent of the participants were either very grim about the region’s
future or not sure.
But as the meeting adjourned 36 percent were somewhat
confident what happened at the forum had made a difference, 26 percent
confident and 12 percent very confident. However, 21 percent remained
somewhat skeptical and 5 percent were pretty skeptical.
Led during the day by non-partisan facilitators from
AmericaSpeaks Inc., attendees were asked to map where they live, work and
what place they value.
Overwhelmingly the Indiana Dunes and related lakeshore
recreational opportunities led that list followed by farmland and rural
areas; Chicago entertainment, culture and jobs; regional Hoosier
universities; the area’s transportation network including the South Shore
commuter railroad; the cultural heritage and redevelopment potential for
Gary, East Chicago and Hammond; and their own family-friendly hometown
Regarding land-use preferences, revitalizing existing
downtowns was favored strongly as was aggressive redevelopment of brownfield
former industrial sites.
Swanson said he perceived strong support for regionalism
during the forum. Dale Engquist, retired former superintendent of the
Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, said he was surprised by how much applause
was generated at the repeated suggestion that governments need to cooperate
and be more efficient.