Chesterton Tribune

 

 

Duneland Chamber members hear progress report on the RDA

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By JEFF SCHULTZ

It was forged by the efforts of state lawmakers in 2005 as one of the largest initiatives ever in Indiana and has proved itself as the leading economic driver for the region putting forward $210.5 million in investments through 2013.

That’s what more than 40 Duneland Chamber of Commerce members and guests were told Wednesday during a luncheon at the Hilton Garden Inn in Chesterton

The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority (RDA) is projected to have supported the creation of roughly 4,000 jobs from its investments from 2006 through 2015, according to the most recent third-party return on investment study done by Policy Analytics. Each dollar invested by the agency returns $5.21 in cumulative economic output and $2.57 of those funds leveraged came from outside sources benefiting NWI residents.

RDA Chief Operating Officer Sherri Ziller told the audience about projects that either have been completed or are underway in Lake and Porter counties.

“We always enjoy the opportunity to tell our story,” she said.

The RDA was charged by the Indiana General Assembly with spearheading the development of Gary/Chicago International Airport, extension of commuter rail systems, regional bus transit, redevelopment of the Lake Michigan shoreline and “other types of economic development,” Ziller said.

RDA involvements include the revitalization of East Chicago’s water filtration system, Whiting Lakefront Park, Wolf Lake Development in Hammond, Marquette Park Pavilion, the Portage Riverwalk and Northshore Park, the ChicaGoDash bus line in Valparaiso, and for Duneland planning studies for the towns of Burns Harbor and Pines and the Porter Gateway to the Dunes which will connect with the countywide Dunes-Kankakee Trail.

Each year, the state funds $10 million in support to the RDA while the five local sources pay $3.5 million in annual dues from either casino revenues or local income tax. The agency works to get grants and form private/public partnerships to make investments.

Ziller said for the Gary airport, every $1 invested by the RDA for the runway extension generates $5.32 in total economic output. The airport expansion is the biggest economic development project, she said, creating approximately 2,430 new jobs by 2025 and will generate more than $527 million in economic output and $169 million in disposable income.

Shoreline development projects are projected to generate a combined total of $93 million in total economic output for NWI with 1,010 new jobs, mostly tourism-related, by 2015, Ziller said.

Transportation/NICTD

While the Regional Bus Authority was shut down due to lack of funding, the RDA is still investing in “surface transportation,” or a bus and rail combination. Ziller said the ChicGoDash, which was created with the help of a grant procured by the RDA, gave a record number of 47,986 rides in 2012 and recently added a fourth bus.

One of the objectives the RDA is pushing toward is improving commuter routes to Chicago. The RDA was instrumental in purchasing 14 new rail cars for the South Shore line with a grant matching federal funds in 2007 and has partnered with the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District on a $550,000 effort to develop a strategic business plan which is to be complete next year.

From the audience, Brock Lloyd of LaPorte Savings Bank in Chesterton said talk of branching the South Shore Line into places like Valparaiso have been a subject of conversation for more than 20 years now and asked Ziller if there would ever be a “ah ha” moment to see things moving beyond “study after study.”

Ziller said the plan will flesh out details on how to meet goals in the next 15 years. She said the groups also want to determine if there is a need for expansion which would involve many public discussions and workshops since costs are expected to be in “the billion-dollar range.”

RDA Communications Director David Wellman added that the study will address the possible expansion of service into other areas with access to airports and recreational destinations, strategies to increase ridership on the South Shore and opportunities for public/private partnerships.

“It’s going to lay out a roadmap rather than just talking about it,” he said.

South Shore Convention and Visitors President and CEO Speros Batistatos, from the audience, gave his opinion that NICTD could reach its full economic potential if its management undergoes a “full paradigm shift.” Instead of just being “a net exporter of human capital” commuting workers to Chicago, NICTD could develop connections with the many parks, casinos, the Gary Airport, and other landmarks nearb,y bringing more dollars to the region.

Future goals

Ziller said the RDA is hoping it can renew its $10 million of yearly support from the state past 2015.

The state agreed to pledge $10 million annually to the RDA for 10 years from 2006 to 2015. The agency has five local sources which pay $3.5 million in annual dues ($17.5 million total) from either casino revenues or local income tax.

Further investment will help the agency complete a growing list of projects including further connectivity to Chicago, the construction of a trauma center and teaching hospital in Gary, brownfield remediation in Lake County, further development of the lakeshore in East Chicago and Portage, developing partnering opportunities with the Indiana Economic Development Company and opening up more regional trails.

“There are so many opportunities out there that will benefit generations to come,” said Ziller.

Duneland Chamber Executive Director Heather Ennis asked members to “keep in mind that all these projects are helping our quality of life.”

Ennis also told members a groundbreaking ceremony will be held for the Dunes-Kankakee Trail on Monday at 1:30 p.m. at the historic gates of Indiana Dunes State Park and thanked the RDA for their contribution in getting the trail started.

The event was co-sponsored by Porter Health Systems and Kramer and Leonard Office Products, of Portage.

 

Posted 6/27/2013