I believe Northwest Indiana, despite some days in the winter, is the best place in the world to live, work and raise a family. Unfortunately, we have suffered through some very difficult economic times, and many young people have chosen not to stay in our Region.
Since 1970, the number of school-aged children in Lake County, Porter County and Michigan City has dropped by more than 72,000 children.
The key to economic success in Northwest Indiana is to retain and enhance our current manufacturing base, whose foundation is steel and oil, and to make investments in transformational projects to improve our quality of place so that young people will stay and return.
One such project is the Gary/Chicago International Airport. Great progress has been made by Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and airport officials. Because of the completion of the runway extension, new investments are anticipated to house a U.S. Customs facility, and a private operator is scheduled to construct a new $5 million hangar this year. I believe that increased economic activity at the airport will benefit not only Gary, but our entire Region.
Our state is privileged to have 45 miles of shoreline on the largest body of freshwater on the planet. Importantly, Indiana’s state government has come to recognize Lake Michigan’s importance from a social and economic standpoint. We must continue to do all we can to increase public access to our lakeshore — first, to improve our quality of place, and second, to set the stage for new economic activity. Under the auspices of the Marquette Plan, I am pleased that 69 acres were recently restored and added to the Portage Lakefront Park. But we have much more to do to ensure every person in Northwest Indiana has open, public access to Lake Michigan.
A true regional bus system also must be developed. We have made progress, but more must be done. Although it is called the Gary Public Transportation Corp., I’m very proud that GPTC also serves people in eight other communities in Lake County. Additionally, Michigan City, LaPorte and Purdue Unitersity Northwest have intercity buses, and the establishment of services is under consideration by Hobart and Portage. Buses are essential to getting people to jobs within our region and to fully realize the potential of improved and expanded commuter rail service.
I believe the expansion and improvement of the South Shore commuter rail system will fundamentally transform the economic landscape of Northwest Indiana for generations to come. This coming August, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transit District, the agency that operates the South Shore, will apply for project ratings from the Federal Transit Administration for both the expansion of commuter rail service from Hammond to Dyer and for double-tracking improvements to the existing line from Gary to Michigan City.
These ratings will allow the projects to be included in the president’s budget so that construction can proceed. The South Shore’s growth and improvement will create new jobs, restore the vibrancy of our economy and improve our quality of place.
We would not be where we are today without the support of so many of our state and local officials, in addition to the Regional Development Authority, One Region and other citizen organizations. Because of their collective efforts to invest in the Gary/Chicago International Airport, our shoreline, buses and commuter rail, we will become the next great economic engine for the state of Indiana.
We must continue to work together, as a region, to ensure we continue to improve our quality of place so that today’s young people will stay, return and thrive in Northwest Indiana’s new and exciting future.