Cooperative economic-development efforts are bearing fruit.
by Laurie Wink
Recent ribbon cuttings at manufacturing facilities across the region are signaling an economic renaissance in what was once considered the rustbelt.
Key economic development professionals, business leaders and elected officials at local, state and federal levels are joining forces–across affiliations and party lines–to promote the region as vibrant and full of opportunity for companies looking to establish and expand their footprints.
Economic development is a team effort, say professionals with the Indiana Economic Development Corp. (IEDC). The state agency works with multiple partners–including the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority (RDA), the Northwest Indiana Forum, the Lake County Economic Alliance and government agencies–to tout Northwest Indiana as a great place to do business.
The IEDC and its partners have helped about 70 companies expand or locate in Northwest Indiana over the last three years. These companies have invested or plan to invest more than $985 million and create nearly 4,400 new jobs. Indiana currently has the highest concentration of manufacturing jobs in the United States, according to the IEDC.
Matt Saltanovitz, formerly with the NWI Forum and now director of the IEDC Northwest region, is seeing “incredible economic momentum.”
“Companies from across state lines and around the world keep coming to us asking to learn more about living and doing business here,” Saltanovitz says. “Companies are choosing to create their new jobs here because we’ve worked together to create the perfect environment for their growth with the affordability, limited regulations and excellent quality of life in Northwest Indiana.”
Saltanovitz says that’s especially true for companies specializing in advanced manufacturing looking for the perfect place to create skilled, high-wage jobs. Some recent business expansions include:
* Hoist Liftruck moved its forklift manufacturing operation from Illinois to East Chicago after purchasing and renovating an abandoned industrial site. The relocation was celebrated at a ribbon cutting and open house in March. Hoist CEO Marty Flaska cited savings of $1 million annually in workers’ compensation-related costs as a factor in the move to Northwest Indiana. About 370 workers are employed at the East Chicago plant, with a goal to employ 500 by 2020.
* Japan-based NB Coatings invested $4.7 million to construct a warehouse and distribution facility in NorthWind Crossings Industrial Park in Hobart, owned by Becknell Industrial. NB Coatings is a subsidiary of Nippon Paint, which has a manufacturing plant in Lansing, Mich. The NorthWind Crossings Industrial Park gives NB Coatings ready access to I-65 and I-94 transportation corridors. BecknelI helped recruit the company, says Denarie Kane, economic development director for the City of Hobart. “We always want to support what Becknell Industrial is doing out there because it’s important to Hobart. The industrial park is one of the few Class A business parks in the area.”
* Corrugated packaging company Pratt Industries invested $260 million in a new recycled paper mill in Valparaiso. The mill opened last October and is the most technologically advanced, eco-friendly mill in the world, according to the company website. The mill is located near Pratt’s box-making plant in Valparaiso. The new mill facility added 120 new jobs to the 280 employees at Pratt’s box plant. Rex Richards, president of the Valparaiso Chamber of Commerce and Valparaiso Economic Development Alliance, says, “It’s the single largest manufacturing investment in the history of the community.”
* Monosol, a global leader in the manufacture of water-soluble films, officially opened its new $95 million, 300,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in April at Ameriplex at the Port in Portage. The plant is expected to be in full production in 2017 and will add 150 new jobs. Monosol is headquartered in Merrillville and is a division of Japan’s Kuraray Group.
* Polycon Industries Inc., also based in Merrillville, is investing $15 million to nearly double the company’s footprint by adding 150,000 square feet to the existing plant. The workforce will increase from 130 to 230 when production gets underway in February. Polycon is a subsidiary of Crown Packaging International and produces high-density polyethylene containers.
* Task Force Tips Inc., a Valparaiso-based manufacturer of firefighting equipment, acquired AMKUS Rescue Systems of Downers Grove, Ill. in March and will transition the engineering, service and manufacturing operations to a new facility in Valparaiso.
* Nuco Steel Bar Technologies, a processor of raw steel materials into steel bars, announced in March that it’s investing nearly $37 million to develop a 150,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art steel bar mill at the Airport Industrial Park in Valparaiso. Nuco plans to create 50 new jobs and will begin hiring operator technicians when construction is complete in 2017.
In October, the IEDC and the NWI Forum co-sponsored the Industrial Asset Management Council meeting in Indianapolis. The event drew asset managers from companies all over the world says Heather Ennis, NWI Forum president and CEO. Ennis and her economic development colleagues are actively targeting companies involved in: advanced manufacturing; transportation, distribution and logistics; and food processing and agribusiness.
“The Midwest is becoming a more and more attractive place for companies from all over,” Ennis says. “The workforce is strong here. We have a Midwest work ethic. We’re not good at tooting our own horns, but we’re good at putting in a good day’s work.”
Regina Emberton, president and CEO of Michiana Partnership Inc. (MPI), has gone with Ennis on what she calls “sales trips” to Chicago to promote Indiana’s favorable business climate. MPI represents Elkhart, St. Joseph and Marshall Counties as well as Michigan’s Berrien County. Emberton believes that all counties in the region accomplish more by working together than they can individually.
“You need density of population to get on the radar screen of those who otherwise might not be interested,” Emberton says. “We’re recruiting across the United States but are focused on the Chicago area and Illinois. That’s the closest concentration of large density companies looking to expand and relocate.”
Emberton uses the term “co- competition” to describe the collaborative working relationships she has with other economic development professionals seeking to attract new business to their own areas.
“With the world so connected, we’re really looking at how we can work together,” she says. “Driving more than 30 minutes is no big deal at all so there are more interconnections between cities.”
Emberton says a big boost came last December, when the IEDC awarded a $42 million grant to the Regional Cities of Northern Indiana. She says the funding supports quality of place projects throughout Elkhart, Marshall and St. Joseph Counties. The Regional Cities Initiative is awarding $42 million to all seven regions of Indiana for innovative approaches to creating vibrant communities that will stem the flow of talented people out of Indiana and into southern and western states.
Efforts to create attractive communities with quality-of-life features go hand-in-hand with economic development, Emberton says. “Millennials are the largest demographic and they’re choosing where to live based on amenities such as bike trails, music, restaurants and entrepreneurial opportunities.”
The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority (RDA) is striving to spur an influx of people who have high-paying jobs in Chicago into Northwest Indiana communities, according to Bill Hanna, RDA president and CEO.
The RDA is charged with spearheading economic development in Lake and Porter Counties by investing in transportation infrastructure–such as expansion of the Gary/Chicago International Airport–and shoreline development along Lake Michigan, including restoring lakefront parks in Whiting, Portage and Gary. Investments over the past 15 years have made Northwest Indiana a more desirable place for both current and potential residents.
Now the focus is on offering faster commute times–an essential element of the RDA’s Comprehensive Strategic Plan–issued in August. To that end, the RDA is working on two goals: developing the West Lake Corridor of the South Shore Line and double tracking a portion of the existing South Shore commuter rail that runs between South Bend and downtown Chicago.
“It’s pretty bold to put a new train line in,” Hanna says. “West Lake is the first new rail line to be put into Indiana for 100 years, and the last one was the South Shore.
“We’re making a bold step forward and doing it in a Hoosier way, using existing assets. We’re doing it in a conservative way by not doing it with new taxes.”
Hanna clearly sees the economic multiplier effect that can occur by enticing more high wage earners into Lake and Porter Counties. “I grew up in a steel family and my Dad would say that, for every one steel job, seven other jobs were supported by it. What’s the driver for that kind of ratio? Chicago.”
Currently, only about 6 percent of Porter County workers and about 20 percent of those in Lake County commute to Chicago. And the population in the two counties has increased about four percent since 1970. On the other hand, nearly 40 percent of the total workforce living in suburban DuPage County works in Cook County. And the Illinois suburban counties around Cook County have had a 226 percent population increase, Hanna says.
“By overcoming our transportation deficit, we can take part in the kind of prosperity that has occurred in suburban Chicago,” Hanna says. “There is real opportunity for some of our older cities to experience an urban renaissance.”
The RDA is partnering with the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD), which operates the South Shore Line, as well as mayors and legislators at state and national levels to push forward the two major transportation infrastructure projects. “The support is bi-partisan and multi-level,” Hanna says, “giving us the opportunity to lay aside other issues and work together to represent the region.”
The West Lake Corridor Extension project proposes to depart from a newly created Hammond Gateway station and travel west to stops in South Hammond, Munster Ridge Road and Munster/Dyer Main Street. Hanna says the West Lake extension could begin construction in 2018 and open in 2022.
The proposed South Shore Double Tracking project will install parallel double tracks from Michigan City to and from Chicago. This will allow faster travel times and more reliability than possible with the single-track system now in place. Hanna says the preliminary engineering study for double tracking is underway and the project could be finished about the same time as the West Lake extension.
The planned improvements along the South Shore corridor and creation of the West Lake extension is expected to spur what’s called “transit oriented development” in urban areas along the rail line in Gary, East Chicago, Portage, Hammond, Munster and Dyer. In fact, Hanna says, “We’re seeing early market adaptors moving in to invest in communities before the project is actually done.”