Chesterton Tribune

Forum on Region's future eyes redevelopment of brownfields and old downtowns

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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 2040.

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 within minutes.

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 www.nirpc.org.

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 in Indianapolis.

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 communities.

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 communities.

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.

 

Posted 12/8/2008