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RDA a smart investment, state lawmakers told

The Portage Lakefront or Beachwalk or riverwalk as seen July 132011. | Scott M. Bort~Sun-Times Media

The Portage Lakefront or Beachwalk or riverwalk as seen on July 13,2011. | Scott M. Bort~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 10, 2013 6:38AM



The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority has big plans for the region but will need to secure funding of up to $10 million annually to plant the seeds for those plans.

During a state Budget Committee hearing, RDA President Bill Hanna tried to illustrate the value developed from the authority since it was formed by the Indiana General Assembly in 2005. With an annual budget of $27.5 million, it received $10 million a year for 10 years from the state, drawing revenue from a 2006 lease of the Indiana Toll Road. The rest of its budget comes from local contributions.

Funding from the state expires in 2015, and Hanna hopes to convince lawmakers of the value of continuing the investment in the region.

“That would take a third out of our budget,” he said.

The RDA uses the funds as seed money, offering to invest in portions of larger projects to attract development projects in Lake and Porter counties. It then calls on private investors, attracting on average $2.57 from outside sources for each $1 spent by the authority.

Hanna said the return on economic impact for the region is high, bringing $5.11 into the region’s economy for each dollar spent.

“So in addition to losing the $10 million,” he said, “we would lose another $51.1 million in economic development. The seed money helps bring in the additional investors. It’s really important that we have the state as a partner. That says to private investors that we’re a stable investment.”

A number of large projects are in the works, and their success could be hindered by the loss of funding. The authority will focus its efforts on expanding shoreline developments, making it easier to walk from the shore to communities. It also wants to improve public transportation, expand opportunities at Gary/Chicago International Airport and attract new businesses to the area.

While a number of shoreline developments have been completed, the RDA sees the importance of allowing easy access from downtown districts to the shore. That will encourage businesses to grow by taking advantage of people visiting the water.

“We focused on points on the shore for redevelopment in the past,” Hanna said. “The next phase is to focus on inland development.”

The Gary runway expansion is expected to be completed in 2013, which will allow the RDA to focus on attracting more business to the airport. Larger airports are looking to free air traffic by reducing the number of charter flights landing at their gates, and Hanna said they hope the Gary airport will be an attractive option.

Public transportation options available to Northwest Indiana are effective, but Hanna said they can collaborate more to provide more options. By expanding transportation options into Chicago, Northwest Indiana can become more attractive as a suburban location, since the cost of living can be higher in Illinois.

“There are about 12 to 15 [train] lines that go to the suburbs north and south of Chicago, but only one line that goes to Northwest Indiana. If you want to be competitive, you need to connect to those jobs. We’re a part of that economy, so we have to connect to that better.”

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said the approach of regional development helps both individual communities and the region as a whole.

“We collectively have more to offer than we have as individual communities. Nobody does economic development as a community alone,” Freeman-Wilson said. “That doesn’t work anymore. People think more regionally now, so the old model is kind of archaic.”

Large projects that attract new businesses and construction are only missing the funding, Whiting Mayor Joe Stahura said. The RDA can help offer that initial funding to get the projects started.

“They’re smart enough and organized enough to see the progress and growth,” Stahura said, “They don’t just give money away if you ask. You need to quantify it and qualify it and show it has potential.

“If [RDA] gets involved, it almost guarantees a level of success.”

Losing the $10 million annually would damage the ability of the RDA to secure funding for projects in Northwest Indiana, but Hanna the group’s vision isn’t likely to change. Hanna said a loss of state funding would prevent the RDA from tackling multiple projects at the same time and slow its work but not stop it.

“The heavy lifting is not over yet,” Hanna said. “I don’t want to look back 20 years from now and say we built some nice things. I want to look back and see the area completely transformed.”



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