Chesterton Tribune

Jobs Cabinet looks at Porter County strengths and weaknesses

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The group ready to fashion a robust workforce for Porter County came to Tuesday’s County Commissioners meeting to show they mean business.

A handful of members from the county jobs cabinet were in attendance as Bill Hanna, the facilitator for the group, presented a “midpoint report” to the commissioners.

Starting in January after Commissioner President John Evans, R-North, appointed members along with Valparaiso Mayor Jon Costas and Portage Mayor James Snyder, the cabinet met on a bimonthly basis to investigate the economic growth factors, impediments and opportunities within the county.

A system of surveys and input from the board led to the findings. The cabinet is now in the process of reaching out to stakeholders – local businesses and private industry, chambers of commerce and elected officials – to participate in input sessions for further insights into what resources are needed to improve the county’s economy.

“While we have a lot of expertise in the room, we don’t have all the answers,” Hanna said.

According to the report, Porter County’s greatest economic strength lies in its infrastructure, given its access to roads such as I-80 and I-94 and the Port of Indiana in Burns Harbor. Location was rated high on the list of strengths, as the proximity to the Indiana Dunes is central to the economy. Hanna said a third reason businesses want to move here is for education, saying that the county has a number of school districts with some of the top test scores in the state. “It’s a huge economic driver.”

More reasons the county remains attractive to businesses is the tax climate, having high assessed values and reasonably low tax rates.

On the flip side, Hanna said the cabinet named lack of coordination or partnering on efforts as the county’s biggest weakness when it comes to economic growth. A related problem, Hanna said, would be for officials to not think regionally about what opportunities there may be to benefit the region or the state. Among the weaknesses, having planning codes that make development difficult was mentioned and lack of a countywide plan for economic development.

The cabinet further named opportunities the county could look into to spur growth, chiefly the $180 million nest egg associated with the sale of Porter hospital. They also suggested looking at cluster developments and improved use of infrastructure, including thinking ahead about the Illiana Expressway.

Things that could threaten growth, the cabinet said, would be development without a strong plan. “Creating a plan is pretty much why this group exists,” said Hanna.

A polarized political climate is also one of the detriments listed. Not taking advantage of the natural resources nor competing with firms in the Chicago area are also seen as potential problems. Other threatening situations to avoid are loss of tax base, infringement and having areas that are not aesthetically pleasing.

Once the data from the remaining focus sessions is compiled, Hanna said the cabinet will get to work on its main objective, which is to create a strategic plan or “roadmap” for officials to follow and execute with the promise of bringing jobs.

Hanna said approximately 120 business from each pocket of the county have participated in one of the 18 focus sessions which are being conducted by Desila Rosetti of Organizational Development Solutions. Questions try to pinpoint what the needs are of a business and how the county can coordinate with the stakeholder on achieving those. Solutions may include building new transportation corridors.

In the upcoming month, the cabinet will hold a retreat to reevaluate goals and set a course for the strategic plan.

Evans expressed his satisfaction with the cabinet’s progress and the fact that there is representation from all over the county with different levels of expertise.

“It’s really a tribute to the people working in the group. We are ready to get this done,” Evans said.

Fellow commissioner Nancy Adams, R-Center, said the plan commission over the recent months has added six new amendments to the Unified Development Ordinance to make it more convenient and less costly for developers wanting to build in Porter County. Changes have been officially made to the sections regarding Planned Unit Developments (PUDs), drainage, subdivision control, development review, sign posting and property maintenance.

Instead of “jumping through a lot of hoops,” plan commission executive director Robert Thompson said, developers will have the ability to work with one review committee. The amendments do make developing easier but the same standards apply, he said.

Evans said the county’s new economic redevelopment commission will be a strong asset, fostering growth in the areas of the county poised for development such as the one surrounding the new hospital.



Posted 6/20/2012