Chesterton Tribune

Chesterton Council splits to support RDA

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By KEVIN NEVERS

Chesterton has joined Porter and Burns Harbor in throwing its support to the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority (RDA).

At its meeting last night, the Town Council voted 4-1 to adopt a resolution articulating its desire “to continue Porter County’s involvement and Chesterton’s participation” in the RDA.

Member Jim Ton, R-1st, voted against the motion after previously voicing his belief that the council should take the resolution under advisement.

The RDA has “benefited Porter County significantly by making investments in Porter County projects of more than $17,200,000,” that resolution reads in part, and those investments “have significantly enhanced and improved the quality of life of Porter County residents, including the citizens of Chesterton.”

The council adopted the resolution following a lengthy presentation by RDA Executive Director Bill Hanna, who opened his remarks by immediately acknowledging the RDA’s failure in the past to communicate regularly with the town and other municipalities in Porter County. “We haven’t communicated well what the RDA is,” he said, and the result has been the bruiting of “hearsay and misinformation.”

For Hanna the whole point of the RDA is to make possible for the region what would be impossible for any single municipality in the region. “Economic development is very competitive on the ground level,” he said. “Times are tight. Everyone’s struggling to find matching funds.”

Indeed, Hanna said, “federal funding models are starting to require co-applications and in the future a town like Chesterton may not to be able to apply for funds by itself.”

That’s where the RDA comes in, Hanna said. “We’re supposed to be the catalyst. We do the heavy lifting of transformational economic development that can’t be done by a single municipality.”

So the question becomes, as Hanna put it, “are we going to continue to be islands or are we going to prosper with the regional approach?”

Under its authorizing legislation, Hanna said, the RDA was established to pursue “five key focuses”: the Gary/Chicago International Airport, the South Shore extension, Lake Michigan shoreline development, a regional bus authority, and “other” economic development initiatives. So far the RDA has concentrated on the first four of those five, Hanna said, so as not yet “to open the Pandora’s box” of the “other,” more broadly defined focus.

The RDA receives its funding from a combination of sources: the state “kicks in” $10 million annually from the proceeds of the Indiana Toll Road lease, while it also receives $3.5 million annually from each of its five members: East Chicago, Gary, Hammond, Lake County, and Porter County. Responding to the complaint voiced by some that Lake County makes its annual contribution from casino revenues, whereas Porter County does from an income tax, Hanna said that in fact that income tax has become “primarily” a property-tax relief mechanism and only secondarily an RDA funding source, since all revenues from the income tax over and above $3.5 million go to homestead credits. Right now, Hanna said, the homestead relief amount is around $9 million.

The return on $40 million in local funding has been great, Hanna said: over $300 million, including $157,313,051 in federal dollars and $54,037,531 in state dollars. And of that amount, $17,200,000 in RDA funding commitments have found their way back to Porter County: $9.7 million for the Portage Lakefront Park plus $350,000 more for land acquisition; $1.8 million to the Town of Porter for the gateway project; $50,000 to the Town of Burns Harbor for a trail study; $1.8 million for Valparaiso bus service; and $3.5 million to the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District for double-decker rail cars.

“That’s free market fertilizer,” Hanna said. “We’re just the fire starter. We’re starting the fires that need to be built to keep this thing going.”

Discussion

Would the RDA be willing to help the Town of Chesterton and Porter hospital develop the infrastructure needed to serve the new facility in Liberty Township, given that project’s “extreme regional impact,” asked Member Sharon Darnell, D-4th.

If that project is in the RDA’s scope, of course, Hanna said. If not, the RDA can still participate in discussions with stakeholders.

“I concur with Sharon,” added President Jeff Trout, R-2nd. “A lot of people don’t realize the new hospital will be the single largest project in Porter County since Bethlehem Steel was built. We’ve got one chance to get that right. Without question it’s the most important thing to be done here in 40 years.”

Member Emerson DeLaney, R-5th, noted that he’s closely followed the RDA since its establishment. “Some of the five key focuses are controversial,” he said. “I may not agree with all of them. But the needs of the many outweigh those of the few and the money returned to Porter County in investments is extremely significant to the betterment of the community and the county.”

Ton, for his part, urged his colleagues unsuccessfully to postpone a vote on the resolution “pending further research,” as he put it. “Some people have serious questions. I don’t want to vote on this resolution right after the presentation.”

But Ton was outvoted, with DeLaney making the motion to adopt the resolution and Member Dave Cincoski, R-3rd, seconding it.

From the floor the council got some thanks from Pat Carlyle. “I am very excited about this,” she said. “I think this opens wonderful opportunities for us.”

Posted 1/26/2008