Forum: Forging future of NWI • Northwest Indiana Business Magazine

Forum: Forging future of NWI

Buy Us A Coffee

Next five IGNITE the Region initiatives focus on generating opportunities

Heather Ennis, president and CEO of the NWI Forum
Heather Ennis

Those who know me know that I am emphatic about the transformation of Northwest Indiana.

I was born and raised in the Region and graduated from Purdue University with a bachelor of science in communications. Working various jobs around the country from sales positions to business development and negotiations, I had the opportunity to leverage my skills and gain increasingly valuable experience along the way.

In 2008, my parents mentioned a position at the Duneland Chamber of Commerce as its executive director. At first, I wasn’t quite sure. I had been all over the country and experienced some amazing opportunities but felt I had more to give, more impact to create.

That’s the funny thing about Northwest Indiana — no matter how far you go, there is always this pull that brings you back home.

I accepted that position in July 2008 and served the Duneland community for over five years before becoming the first female president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Forum. When I started at the Forum, we had a lot to figure out: how to create value in Northwest Indiana, generating consistent funding streams for the organization, defining an identity and more.

It was clear early on to me that we were and are going to continue to be great at three main things:

Being the voice of Northwest Indiana business. Working with legislators, we have had great success representing over 140 member organizations to help generate federal and state legislation conducive to a positive business climate here in NWI.

Marketing Northwest Indiana as the place to do business. We spend around 30% of our time outside of the market telling the story of the Region, spreading the good news to organizations and working with them to relocate to Indiana. Leveraging the natural, industrial and legislative assets that make Indiana so unique in comparison to the rest of the country, we work to drive investment, increase average wages and create a place people want to be.

We stake out and drive bold initiatives. In the years leading up to 2018, we had met with thousands of individuals to discuss their organizations, big plans and how they see themselves in Northwest Indiana. There was a ton of overlap that translated to many organizations working separately on the same goals and straining much more resources than needed. In early spring of 2018, we decided that it was critical to get those folks in the same room to discuss overlap, learn how to work together, and create synergies that had the opportunity to go further together. We worked to bring over 500 business community members together to craft IGNITE The Region: Northwest Indiana’s strategy for economic transformation. This plan serves as the playbook for the Region. If we want to be successful in Northwest Indiana, we knew we had to be dynamic and strategize around five key pillars: talent, placemaking, infrastructure, business development and marketing, and entrepreneurship and innovation.

In 2021, Gov. Eric Holcomb announced that the state would allocate $500 million of federal American Rescue Plan Act funding to a competitive regional development program called READI, which stands for Regional Economic Acceleration and Development Initiative. This would give 17 regions around the state the opportunity to submit projects to the Indiana Economic Development Corp. for a chance at a maximum award of $50 million per region.

A regional strategy was necessary for the program. When this requirement was announced, I became increasingly grateful for the rigorous process we had gone through to craft IGNITE the Region just a few years before.

I had many discussions with peers across the state who were just starting the strategic planning process. All the while, we were many steps ahead working with leaders to discuss the most impactful projects in Northwest Indiana. That project list topped 250 that helped craft our grant application and ultimately garnered us the full funding amount of $50 million. We were 1 of 5 regions to receive that amount and have taken advantage of every dollar to create over $700 million in total investment. Through 37 projects, the impact in workforce development, business attraction, regional marketing, and many other fields has been astronomical.

We have our eyes set on bigger goals. With READI 1.0 well on the way, the Indiana General Assembly awarded another $500 million to the IEDC to create READI 2.0 for infrastructure projects. This time around, there are 15 identified regions, and the max award amount was increased to a potential $75 million per region.

In the summer of 2023, a few months before the five-year anniversary of IGNITE the Region, we reconvened the original IGNITE team and began crafting our bold strategy to create greater opportunities in Northwest Indiana.

Here are our big ideas:

Industry Innovation and Creative Culture: Celebrating NWI’s role in producing 24% of the nation’s steel, we emphasize the need to evolve the economy. Supporting initiatives like the Quantum Corridor and fostering collaboration between entrepreneurial pioneers, we are aiming to position NWI as a hub for innovation.

Investment Ready Assets: Acknowledging the Region’s favorable tax climate and incredible assets, it has never been more important to have more investment-ready real estate. Efforts that are working to secure an EDA Fellow and to establish a revolving loan fund demonstrate a commitment to creating attractive opportunities for investors and residents alike.

Opportunity Campuses: The creation of multi-partner opportunity campuses to drive workforce readiness and entrepreneurship is critical in our Region. Partnerships with foundations, universities and local organizations aim to meet people where they are to provide resources and support across the Region.

Sustainable Destination Development: Recognizing NWI’s natural assets, plans for a convention center and sustainable amenities along the National Park, Kankakee River, and other ecotourism sites underscore the commitment to improving accessibility for residents and attracting visitors.

Advanced Energy: NWI’s dedication to sustainable and affordable alternative energy technologies is highlighted through projects like Dunns Bridge, Mammoth Solar installation, and the exploration of hydrogen.

Northwest Indiana is truly positioned for a regional renaissance. With federal investments such as the $1 billion Hydrogen Hub award, two Tech Hub designations (Bloch Tech Hub and Heartland BioWorks Tech Hub), state investments through READI 1.0 and the potential for READI 2.0 funding, the over $649 million double-track project and more, we are positioning Northwest Indiana to be the leader of greater opportunities in the country.

Interested in learning more about or joining the Northwest Indiana Forum? Contact Spencer Summers at

Read more stories from the current issue of Northwest Indiana Business Magazine.


  • Heather Ennis

    Heather Ennis has been the president and CEO of the NWI Forum since 2014. She was awarded the Sagamore of the Wabash in 2023.

    Website Email

Leave a Reply

Scroll to Top