Heather Ennis knows what Northwest Indiana has to offer to businesses: a strong highway and rail system, diverse communities, an international port and a regional airport that continues to expand. The area offers plenty to residents, too, including beachfront along Lake Michigan, affordable housing prices and a sprawling system of natural greenways and blueways.
The problem? Not enough business leaders know about these positives.
That’s why Ennis, president and chief executive officer of the Northwest Indiana Forum, is excited about the five-year economic development plan that her organization is now beginning to craft. The goal of this plan is to use the resources of Northwest Indiana to attract even more businesses and residents to the area, something that will provide a boost to the region’s economy and commercial real estate market.
“I don’t know that today we have a strong enough vision for the Northwest Indiana region,” Ennis said. “We have so many great assets. There’s our proximity to Chicago, our commuter rail system, the international port. The Gary/Chicago Airport now has an expanded runway. There are a lot of assets here that we are not using in the best way.”
Ennis said that the economic development plan – which will look at all of the region’s communities and assets and how they can be used to attract new business – can help the region’s leaders do a better job of promoting the benefits of Northwest Indiana.
“We need a stronger playbook to put all of these things into action,” Ennis said. “I think we know a lot of the things we should be doing. But often you can’t see the forest for the trees when you’re in the thick of it. We need a playbook to tell us what industry clusters we should be going after, here are some changing trends in employment and here are the opportunities that will occur in the next five years that you could build upon. It’s a better approach than just stabbing in the dark.”
To kickstart the plan, the Northwest Indiana Forum is launching a new marketing campaign with the slogan, “Welcome to the middle of everywhere.” It is also paying Seattle-based consultant TIP Strategies $200,000 to develop a baseline plan for the region that would include thoughts and recommendations from local governments, busnesses, residents and economic development agencies. The Indiana Economic Development Corporation is paying $50,000 toward the strategic plan.
Once it has collected this information, TIP will create a list of suggestions for the forum. Ennis said that this portion of the project will last about six months. After that, the forum and area leaders will identify what goals to tackle.
“We don’t tell our story loud enough,” Ennis said. “There are so many wonderful things that are here. There is an outcome from this plan that we are string for. We want to attract more talent to the region. We want to bring more businesses here. We want to build on the strong business climate we already have. You can only do so much with tax cuts. You eventually need to do implement the quality-of-life components.”
The forum, of course, has already had success in promoting the region and in helping to bring companies to it. A total of 17 companies moved into Northwest Indiana last year. These companies pledged to invest more than $660 million in Northwest Indiana and create about 1,500 jobs.
The forum is also working on a key brownfield initiative that will move brownfield properties back into the marketplace. Ennis said that one of the challenges in Northwest Indiana is product readiness. The product that is left on the market needs more work before it’s ready to be sold, she said. The goal now is to remediate those brownfield sites and make sure they are ready for interested buyers.
Ennis said that teamwork will be essential to the success of the five-year development plan.
“None of us can do this alone,” she said.