Chesterton Tribune

Burns Harbor joins Porter in backing RDA

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The Porter Town Council did it with a one-page resolution.

The Burns Harbor Town Council did it with a one-sentence motion.

Both have gone on record endorsing the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

As he did Tuesday at Porter, RDA executive director Bill Hanna on Wednesday introduced himself to Burns Harbor officials, explained the RDA’s mission and achievements and welcomed their support. The RDA squares off in court Jan. 26 with Porter County, which is trying to withdraw its four-year membership in the authority.

The RDA gave Burns Harbor $50,000 last year for a study outlining plans for future construction of the town’s portion of the proposed Marquette Greenway hike/bike trail; the money also served as half the local match for a $100,000 planning grant. The RDA gave the town of Porter $1.8 million in 2009 for Phase 1 of its Gateway to the Dunes makeover for the Indiana 49/U.S. 20 corridors.

When it comes to projects like the Burns Harbor trails study, Burns Harbor Councilman Mike Perrine said, “Without an organization like the RDA, I don’t know where we’d come up with the money.”

Hanna said the RDA is funded with $3.5 million in annual donations from each of East Chicago, Gary, Hammond and Lake County raised through their respective casino revenue. Lacking that, to fund its RDA commitment Porter County implemented an economic development income tax or CEDIT, the proceeds of which also provide property tax relief.

Hanna said Porter County has invested $12.5 million in the RDA with a return of $17.2 million received, not including Porter’s $1.8 million yet to be disbursed. Since the time Porter County withdrew its RDA member appointment and financial support, Hanna said $1.75 million in RDA-earmarked county funds are sitting in escrow pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

The RDA funding formula, which includes state contributions, sunsets in 2015 unless there is a desire to keep it in place. Overall since 2005 Hanna said the RDA has committed more than $132 million to Northwest Indiana projects and disbursed $47 million so far including $2 million for the Valparaiso-to-Chicago bus service and $6 million to the Little Calumet River Basin Commission for flood relief.

These are the kinds of projects the RDA was created to support --- ones where it can bring leadership to the table, provide opportunities for collaboration and do the heavy lifting financially when partners are needed, said Hanna.

Burns Harbor councilman Cliff Fleming said his work with regional economic development groups demonstrates money is going to those who make joint applications. “The name of the game is regionalism.”

Burns Harbor resident Clark Hamilton asked what the RDA can do to promote the South Shore commuter line and high-speed rail. Hanna said the RDA is looking at land planning issues around the Gary/Chicago International Airport in those regards, and that the RDA is helping the South Shore assemble solid data to support future projects and applications like streamlining the Kensington track bottleneck in Illinois.

Responding to a question from resident Tyler DeMar, Hanna said Burns Harbor is particularly well positioned from the RDA’s perspective because it’s located between Portage and Porter, both having received RDA funding and hoping to secure more. With the RDA tasked to implement the Marquette Plan for lakefront redevelopment, Burns Harbor resident Gene Weibl asked what the RDA can do about repeated Lake Michigan beach closings due to upstream contamination.

Hanna said separating storm and sanitary sewers in older cities and towns is a way to avoid combined sewer overflows, and a pilot program may be an application the RDA would consider. Earlier Hanna said, “We have something bigger than the Grand Canyon called Lake Michigan.”

The executive director said some of the misinformation and inaccuracies floating around about the RDA are partially its fault because the RDA didn’t do a good job telling its own story; he said he hopes to report annually about the RDA’s accomplishments.

Hanna, who grew up in South Haven, is a former military escort for President Clinton and honor guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery. He told the Town Council, “I’m passionate about Porter County. I want to see good things here.”

Fleming moved that the council support the activities of the RDA. Vote was 4-0 with member Louis Bain absent.

Earlier Wednesday during the Burns Harbor Redevelopment Commission meeting, councilman Jim McGee asked if the courts allow Porter County to dissolve its RDA membership, what would happen to the CEDIT tax that also provides cash disbursements to cities and towns to use at their discretion? Town clerk-treasurer Jane Jordan said that’s up for debate and interpretation.

Perrine said, “Losing CEDIT money will devastate a number of cities and towns.” He noted that while he isn’t a big RDA booster yet doesn’t have a problem with it either, it’s important to him whether CEDIT money is there or not.



Posted 1/14/2010