Chesterton Tribune

Think region first to boost economy

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It was, for a few weeks in the fall of 2000, a roiling tempest in the Chesterton teapot.

The rumor: Lake Erie Land Company concealed from the Town Council negotiations with Natural Ovens Bakery of Manitowoc, Wis., to locate a plant at Coffee Creek Center.

The outrage: Natural Ovens located that plant instead in Valparaiso, and Chesterton—for want of a chance to put its considerable official municipal weight behind the deal—lost a plum.

The facts: Lake Erie Land never was in formal negotiations with Natural Ovens, and—in any case—it had nothing to offer the bakery because not a single parcel at Coffee Creek Center is zoned industrial.

Now, nearly two years later, construction of the Natural Ovens plant, all 60,000 square feet of it, is nearly complete, the firm plans to be baking bread by September, and something like 1,800 applications are on file for the 65 to 90 jobs which the operation is expected to create.

Far from begrudging the good fortune of a cross-county rival, Chesterton should be delighted. So should Porter. And Burns Harbor. Because Natural Ovens isn’t investing in Valparaiso, it’s investing in the whole of Porter County. And the dividends of that investment will ripple throughout the Tri-Towns.

Valparaiso, of course, will enjoy the property taxes which Chesterton itself coveted. Yet property taxes aren’t the only measure of economic development, nor—as the General Assembly moves glacially to reform Indiana’s tax structure—will they necessarily be the most important measure in the future. For Natural Ovens is doing more than improving real property and installing personal property. It’s bringing cash. And cash circulates. It pays salaries and wages, purchases goods and services, endows foundations and charities. It changes hands, crosses borders, enriches everyone. Valparaiso has no more a monopoly on the Natural Ovens windfall than it does on the wind.

And Duneland has no less a claim to that windfall than it does to the Lake Michigan mills.

In short, we must learn to conceive of economic development not solely and simply as a municipal enterprise, which begins and ends within narrowly defined and highly artificial corporate limits, but as a regional one. Chesterton, Porter, and Burns Harbor aren’t competing among themselves. They’re not competing with Valparaiso or Portage. They’re competing with Chicagoland.

The Tri-Towns don’t have to think smaller, only smarter. Somewhere in the emerging economy and shifting demographics of this county—of the three counties—Duneland has a role to play, neither as an independent player nor a bit player but as a partner. We have no business chasing new manufacture purely for the sake of new manufacture. Valparaiso and Portage will beat Duneland in that race every time. But we do have an interest in positioning our towns to serve manufacture. Our task is the same as any entrepreneur’s: to identify needs in the region and then fill them. Information, logistics, software, design, consulting, advertising: these will mean more in the 21st century than any brick-and-mortar facility. So let Valparaiso and Portage supply the brawn of economic development. Let Duneland supply the brains.

Here’s how to think globally and act locally:

•Outreach: The Duneland Chamber of Commerce and Duneland Economic Development Company must establish lines of communication with area industries on behalf of local vendors and contractors.

•Cooperation: Duneland officials and their counterparts in Valparaiso and Portage must routinely liaise, they must develop a profile of our economy, and they must craft a borderless strategy to grow it, a strategy premised on the complementary and supplementary relationships among our communities.

•Marketing: Duneland doesn’t have the land or the zoning, the infrastructure or the resources, to re-invent the wheel. But we can help to spin the wheel which is turning elsewhere in the region. We need to make a compelling case for the sort of transplants and start-ups which support the industries already in place here.

The Tri-Towns clearly can’t do without revenues. Our quality of life depends partially on the quality of their services. Yet the point of commerce has never been to empower government. The point is to empower people, to create wealth and opportunity, to foster freedom and diligence. Just ask the Dunelanders who’ll be working for Natural Ovens.


Posted 5/21/2002