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Cabinet report urges quick action for Porter County job creation plan

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

If Porter County is ever going to become one of the nation’s powerhouses for economic growth, now is the time for action.

That was the message from the County Jobs Cabinet which presented its comprehensive report at the County Commissioners’ meeting Tuesday.

Facilitator for the group Bill Hanna told the commissioners that the county already has the assets needed to create job opportunities, it’s just a matter of mobilizing them, which is discussed in detail in the final report.

“We want to give you something that will not sit on the shelf and collect dust. We want to give you an action plan,” Hanna said.

Over the span of ten months, the 11 Cabinet members analyzed the county’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats by interviewing more than 120 business and community leaders all over the county.

What they recommend is a strategic focus on four industry areas that have the most growth potential – healthcare, industrial (particularly steel production), information technology and tourism.

The construction of Porter Regional Hospital and its neighboring medical campus currently being developed by St. Andrews Development is one of three “anchors” the Cabinet named as sites with value growth. Both complexes make Northwest Indiana “a regional center for non-urban health care excellence.”

The other hotbed areas are the “underutilized” Porter County Municipal Airport and the Ameriplex at the Port business and industrial park off of I-94 in Portage.

But for the primary purpose of economic development, Hanna said the county stands to gain multiple benefits by using public funds to improve infrastructure, transportation networks and potential development sites.

With the implementation of roads, bridges, sewers and more modern additions like Wi-Fi networks and fiber optics, “this place could explode,” Hanna said.

But he advised the county will need to be “savvy” on how it plans its growth and land acquisitions and take appropriate actions. One example would be to preclude inter-community competition among local businesses.

Best kept secret

In order to achieve economic growth, the Cabinet said County officials should concentrate on implementing tools and policies to take advantage of opportunities, aggressively market Porter County, give priority to business opportunities in the four focus areas, and lower barriers to attract specific job-producing employers looking to locate here.

They should also pursue the opportunity to work with regional transportation stakeholders to develop a unified commuter transportation plan aimed to benefit commuters to the Chicago marketplace who are looking to settle in Porter County with its lower taxes, housing costs, and high quality education.

“People are waking up to the fact that this is the best kept secret in the Chicago Marketplace in terms of having families and raising kids.” Hanna said.

Although officials have disputed whether or not to use sale money from the 2007 hospital purchase by Community Health Systems of more than $160 million, the Cabinet encourages officials to invest part of the principal into two or three “game-changing” capital projects which in the end could be a substantial source of tax revenue from self-replicating projects. Using Ameriplex as an example, the park’s 44 companies employ 1,600 people and contribute about $2 million per year in tax revenue for the City of Portage.

Hospital money to play role

The Cabinet encourages the County Treasurer to “adopt the mentality of an investment bank” and make “half” of the hospital sale proceeds available to towns, cities, and school corporations to provide low-interest financing for capital projects and gain a higher interest rate than what the Treasurer is currently receiving on short-term investments. Another suggestion is to work with local banks to provide a pool of money for mortgages to attract employees of relocating business leading to increased values of homes in the county and increased per capita income.

Also stated are recommendations for the County Council to establish a matching fund program for nonprofit projects with public access and set policies that a majority of both CEDIT revenues and Riverboat Revenue Sharing funds be used for job creation.

Further suggestions given in the report:

• The county should create incentives for the type of businesses it intends to attract like improvement loans and tax abatements.

• Expand the use of Tax Increment Financing (TIF) districts while permitting pass-throughs for schools.

• Develop a base of information to assist in marketing the county and to provide a quick response to new and expanding employers.

New Department?

While acknowledging the common belief in limited government growth, The Cabinet contended that in order to maintain focus, it is essential the County hire staff for a new department responsible for guiding economic progress. Having the department would eliminate redundancy by having a central office, it argued. Hanna said the office could be funded by county economic development income tax.

The executive director, who would report to the County Commissioners, would have to possess “far above average” talents, Hanna said. This person would be the direct contact for all local economic development organizations in the County.

An advisory board should also be established by the director, the report said, with diverse areas of expertise.

Crossroads of the nation

Hanna added that what makes Porter County so attractive is its financial stability and its close location to one of the largest economies in the world. With counties in the state of Illinois and Michigan facing bankruptcy, this would be the shining moment to grow.

“From where we sit, we can control our own destiny but it is going to require proactivity,” he said.

County Commissioners John Evans, R-North, Nancy Adams, R-Center, and Carole Knoblock, D-South, all voted to accept the plan.

Evans said he was amazed at the “effort and intelligence” that went into the report and vowed to “get this going fairly quickly.” The report will be given to the Council at their next meeting on Jan. 5, as well as to the newly formed Redevelopment Commission.

“We truly are the crossroads of the nation. If we don’t seize this opportunity, what are we going to tell our kids?” said Evans.

When the Cabinet was announced exactly one year ago with Portage Mayor James Snyder and Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas, the Commissioners allocated $75,000 towards launching the plan and a total of $25,000 came from the two municipalities. Cabinet members were not paid for their service.

Evans asked that Cabinet members be on hand to advise the County through the next steps and to interview candidates for the economic development executive director role.

 

 

Posted 12/19/2012