Revitalizing a Region: Leaders Seek Elusive ‘Big Win’

By: Indiana Chamber of Commerce Last Updated: March 22, 2010

Written by Tom Schuman

Perception of Northwest Indiana from much of the rest of the state: It’s a dysfunctional area with political games and territorial battles preventing economic progress. Reverse the dynamics and people in the area – also affectionately referred to as Da Region, the South Shore, the Calumet Region and probably a few other monikers – feel slighted. They, moreso than those in other corners of the state, believe lawmakers and others rarely get beyond Central Indiana in their attention and their dollars.

Reality is that both perceptions have some merit – to a point. That is the sentiment of four respected Northwest Indiana leaders who gathered at the Northwest Indiana Forum (Forum) offices in Portage for this discussion.

They admit that their own house has not always been in order, but (in borrowing from Bob Dylan) “The Times They Are are a-Changin’.” They believe one “win” (there are several candidates) will generate tremendous momentum and the public is coming around to a regional vision. As for the rest of the state, the increased focus from Gov. Mitch Daniels is appreciated and there is acknowledgement that internal consensus will help drive external results.

Helping lead the way and sharing their insights are:

  • Vince Galbiati, president and CEO of the Forum (the regional economic development organization) at the time of this discussion. He later resigned that position
  • Leigh Morris, chairman of the board of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority (RDA), a deputy commissioner of the Indiana Department of Transportation (primarily for Indiana Toll Road oversight) and former mayor of LaPorte
  • Bill Nangle, executive editor of The Times media company, which publishes a daily newspaper and nine magazines. He has spent the last 40 years in the area
  • Mike Schrage, president and CEO of Centier Bank, a community bank that operates throughout the region. Schrage is the fourth generation to lead the family-owned business

Major economic player
From his banking perspective and lifelong residence in the region, Schrage provides a solid overview of the Northwest Indiana economy. While, as a whole, the booms and busts have not occurred, he says, the last few years have certainly had an impact.

“It’s not an extremism type of culture. Because of that, I think we can ride out the highs and the lows in the economic cycles, and that’s what we’re doing this time.” The difference, though, he adds, is “I think that everybody kind of lost their breath a bit because of the disappearance of the equity in their homes, the disappearance of the equity in their 401(k) retirements.”

The deep manufacturing downturn of the early 1980s did have a dramatic impact (lessening the blow somewhat this time), recalls Schrage, who expects “a slow recovery year in 2010 in Northwest Indiana. But the factors for future growth are there, so I’m very optimistic for 2011 and beyond.”

When the topic is business, Galbiati claims the area is often overlooked in regard to the size and scope of some of its major players. The Forum uses the tagline “Where Global Industries Find World-Class Locations” as part of its messaging. Examples that he cites include: • PepsiCo with the second largest bottling facility in the country • The BP Whiting refinery, among the largest operations of its kind in North America • ArcelorMittal, a global leader in steel production, and U.S. Steel “holding its own” With Indiana as a whole experiencing success in touting its tax climate against other states, Northwest Indiana clearly benefits from comparisons with Illinois. Nangle points to a recent Chicago Tribune editorial lamenting the job losses from Illinois – many crossing the border into the Hoosier state.

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