By VICKI URBANIK
The newly formed Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority kicked off
its first meeting Monday, hearing from residents who urged the agency to
carry out its economic projects while protecting the environment, involving
impoverished communities, and rising above partisan politics.
At its inaugural meeting at Indiana University Northwest, the RDA was
greeted with a standing-room-only, overflow crowd of more than 100,
including elected officials, representatives of the agencies expected to get
RDA funding, and the general public.
The first order of business for the six RDA members present—Governor Mitch
Daniels’ representative and RDA Chair John Clark, Gus Olympidis of Porter
County, Lou Martinez of Lake County, Bill Joiner of Gary, Nathaniel Ruff of
East Chicago and Howard Cohen of Hammond—was to get sworn in by attorney
The seventh member, Harley Snyder, the Portage/governor appointee,
participated in the 2 1/2 hour meeting via a speaker phone due to a prior
engagement in California.
Formed this year as a funding mechanism for regional air, rail, bus and
shoreline projects in Northwest Indiana, the RDA heard about 90 minutes of
comments from agencies that began to make their pitch for funding and from
governmental officials, who praised the RDA as the region’s best hope for an
The RDA then opened its meeting to the rest of the audience. And it got an
Most of the residents were from Lake County, several of whom implored the
RDA to use its power to help poorer communities and minority- and
women-owned small businesses. Some peppered the RDA with questions about how
openly it will conduct its business, how contracts will be awarded, and
whether Northwest Indiana residents will get the first shot at the new jobs
expected to be created.
Protection of the environment was a theme for several speakers.
Lee Botts, long-time environmental advocate from Porter County, said the RDA
should work to bring Indiana up to par with other states that invest in
“green commerce,” such as businesses that develop technologies that improve
the air quality, manufacturers of solar panels, and firms that restore
While expansion of the Gary/Chicago International Airport is identified as
one of the RDA’s projects, Botts said the serious environmental concerns
with the airport expansion must be resolved, and questions about whether an
expanded airport in Gary would actually alleviate Chicago’s air traffic need
to be explored.
In other words, she said: “Not all our eggs should be put in the airport
Similarly, resident Paul Meyers said the RDA shouldn’t just invite
industries to the table unless it wants to turn Northwest Indiana into an
industrial wasteland. The RDA, he said, should adopt principles of smart
growth, with a focus on turning brownfields into “green fields.”
Dan Lowery, executive director of the Quality of Life Council, said the RDA
should have the twin focus of environmental stewardship in conjunction with
economic development. He said an RDA resolution upholding the values of
sustainable development would go a long way toward alleviating concerns
among the public. “The key word is sustainability,” he said.
Several speakers were members of the Interfaith Federation, a citizens group
based in north Lake County that has been working for years for improved mass
transportation. Several spoke out directly for the newly reconfigured
Regional Bus Authority, and called on the RDA not to shortchange the needs
of regional bus services.
Other Lake County residents blasted years of corruption in their home county
and called on the RDA to rise among scandal and politics. Perhaps the most
pointed statement on this topic came from Munster resident Tom Drake, who
called on Clark, as the only non-Northwest Indiana resident on the RDA, to
exercise his veto power, saying that he has no faith in the RDA’s Lake
Overall, however, the mood was upbeat. Gary resident Esther Lewis said many
young people have a sense of hopelessness and those who obtain bachelors and
masters degrees tend to leave the area for better jobs. But, she said, she’s
optimistic “just to see how much hope is in this room.”
Similarly, Bill Wellman said the RDA represents a huge change for Northwest
Indiana and has prompted “something like a love fest” that he hopes will
Two of the agencies expected to get RDA funding got right to work Monday,
outlining their funding requests.
Paul Karras of the Gary Airport said the airport has an immediate need to
extend a runway and remove a railroad embankment, a project estimated to
cost $85 million in 2004 dollars. Of that $85 million, the airport is
seeking $42 million from federal sources and a minimum of $14 million from
the RDA. But with other improvements slated, the “bottom line” need for RDA
assistance for the airport will be $41 million, he said.
Dennis Rittenmeyer of the Regional Bus Authority said it will cost $5.19
million just to maintain the three fixed route bus lines and two
demand-response lines that now exist in Lake and Porter counties. But, he
said, the current bus systems only meets 25 percent of the actual needs,
noting that the fixed route systems in Hammond, East Chicago and Gary are
restricted since they by and large do not go outside their respective
“We need a better system. We need a stable funding source,” he said.
Other agencies that the RDA will assist are the South Shore commuter service
and the shoreline revitalization project known as the Marquette Plan.
Gerald Hanas, general manager of the Northern Indiana Commuter
Transportation District, said the South Shore is a vibrant economic engine
for the region, with commuters earning an aggregate salary of $230 million.
Likely due to rising energy costs, the South Shore has already seen an 18
percent increase in ridership year-to-date during the weekends and 6 percent
on weekdays, he said.
Portage Mayor Doug Olson, chair of the Shoreline Development Commission,
said the Marquette Plan championed by U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Ind.,
represents a cohesive vision to open the shoreline for public recreational
use. But, he noted, to make it work will require “visionary leadership”
among those in the private sector, such as industries that now own shoreline
A Great Opportunity
Among other speakers, the RDA was repeatedly lauded as a unique and
unprecedented opportunity for economic growth.
The day represents “the rebirth of all of Northwest Indiana,” said State
Rep. Chet Dobis, D-Merrillville. The RDA will need to counter the negative
image of the region and show the rest of Indiana “that we are made of
Similarly, State Rep. Ralph Ayres, R-Chesterton, said the creation of the
RDA wasn’t just a bi-partisan effort, but a non-partisan one. Noting that
the state has committed funds to the RDA in the form of $5 million to $10
million per year in designated Toll Road revenues, Ayres said “we literally
are the envy” of other communities in the state that now want their own RDA.
Ed Charbonneau, executive director of the Northwest Indiana Local Government
Academy, said everything the RDA says and does will send a message to the
rest of the state. He urged the RDA members to articulate their core values
and adopt a substantial and meaningful ethics ordinance that will guide how
they behave and think, in turn influencing the culture and values throughout
The RDA members themselves noted the uniqueness of their challenge.
“The state of Indiana hasn’t done anything quite like this,” Clark said.
Olympidis said he believes the RDA can provide a vehicle for the
“celebration of the unique culture of Northwest Indiana.” Snyder said rather
than focus on what the RDA can do for Lake County or for Porter County, he
wants to focus on “what we can do for Northwest Indiana.”
The RDA held another meeting this morning in Hammond to begin hashing out
the mechanics of how it will operate.
Clark said after Monday’s meeting that he expects the RDA will meet monthly,
at least initially, though state law only requires quarterly meetings.
Because the RDA will not get any funding until January, it will use the time
between now and the end of the year to enact bylaws and policies and handle
other administrative tasks.
Clark did make one commitment: The RDA, he said, will be “ruthlessly” open
about conducting all its business in public.