Chesterton Tribune

Citizens to RDA: Focus on the poor, protect the environment

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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 Dave Hollenbeck.

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 economic rebirth.

The RDA then opened its meeting to the rest of the audience. And it got an earful.

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 natural areas.

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 basket.”

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 County representatives.

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 continue.

Agency Requests

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 cities.

“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 property.

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 something great.”

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 region.

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.”

What Now?

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.






Posted  9/27/2005