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