Living up to our region's incredible potential.
“We have met the enemy and he is us” is a quote from the old comic strip, Pogo.
As we strive to integrate sustainable development in Northwest Indiana, the perception of us as “Region Rats” impedes the initiative.
The 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall caused an economic ripple that was felt in Northwest Indiana. It exposed Eastern Europe and eventually Asia to the world marketplace. The emerging economies of India, Russia and China swept the planet, bringing opportunities for countries such as Brazil to influence the global economy.
In Northwest Indiana, the once mighty steel industry upon which our social foundations were built was in decline. The mills at their peak employed 20,000 workers each. It was commonly held that for each job in the mills there were six support jobs in the community. Consolidation and downsizing ultimately resulted in the survival of the fittest steel mills that now employ around 6,000 workers each and make more product of higher quality than ever.
The enormous tax base of the steel mills and the oil refinery created a culture of political entitlement and dependence on those taxes. Life was pretty good until the global economy caught up to us.
Sadly, there are many who have not accepted this reality and desperately long for things to return to what it was.
But if this region is to survive and prosper, many interrelated aspects of life here must come together. We have set the stage by creating many tax advantages and supporting incentives to attract new businesses, but progress is not as robust as we desire. It is evident that it's not just a simple dollars and cents issue. We need to assess quality of life issues that give the region such a poor image, and take action.
One problem is that many residents do not acknowledge and tout the wonderful qualities of living here. Someone once said that Northwest Indiana should identify itself as the “right side of Chicago!” We have much to offer and plenty to celebrate.
One can live in a virtually rural area and be in downtown Chicago in less than an hour. We have fantastic green spaces, a national park and an adjacent state park at the dunes. Our natural treasures coexisting with industry is a story in itself.
We have many and varied art and cultural offerings across all the counties that are too numerous to list. We have six colleges and universities offering a complete package of higher-education programs.
The quality of our air and water has continually improved. The region is becoming recognized as a national destination for the paddling sports with our Blueways and Greenways trail systems.
Have you ever attended the Pierogi Festival in Whiting, or the Popcorn Festival in Valparaiso, the Gary Air Show or any of the other remarkable community events offered across the region?
There is work to do to bring Northwest Indiana into a secure position to compete in a global economy and to grow more prosperous. Critical elements fostering positive economic development have to be in place. We must attract new investment in the area, whether it is relocation of existing facilities or creation of innovative enterprises. We must encourage existing businesses to stay and expand.
We need to meld the advantages of our industrial history with the agricultural opportunities that are here. We are working to clean up our image of being divisive, politically corrupt, polluted and backward-thinking. If the region holds to the 19th century mindset that so many accuse us of having, then we're at the mercy of those who are driven to seek a better life in other countries instead Northwest Indiana.
Jim Flannery is executive director of the Northwest Indiana Quality of Life Council Inc., a not-for- profit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable development in Northwest Indiana. It is associated with all six regional colleges and universities.