Northwest Indiana has a new way to seek federal funds for economic development more than 10 years in the making.

The Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission on Sept. 19 announced that its region of Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties has been designated an economic development district by the Economic Development Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce.

That means NIRPC will be able to help cities and towns seek federal funds for economic development projects, similar to the way NIRPC helps its 41 communities get federal money for road and transportation projects,Executive Director Ty Warner said.

“Now we have a very solid, steady role for economic development in Northwest Indiana,” he said.

“It’s a really big deal,” added Geof Benson, Beverly Shores’ representative on NIRPC’s board.

Last year, when Benson was NIRPC’s chairman and also president of the National Association of Regional Councils, he met with John Fleming, the EDA’s assistant secretary, and several other EDA officials during the national association’s annual conference.

“They understood the concerns of Northwest Indiana in seeking the (economic development district) designation, and the benefit it could bring for economic development in our region,” Benson said in a NIRPC news release.

Warner said NIRPC had been seeking the economic development district designation for more than 10 years, well before he came to NIRPC. The Little Calumet River flood of 2008, which caused extensive damage from Lake Station to Munster, prompted the search for help in economic development, he said.

Warner also said that the late Roosevelt Allen Jr., who served on the Calumet Township Board and then as a Lake County commissioner until his death in 2016, was “a big champion” for NIRPC to form an economic development district.

The U.S. Economic Development Administration will give NIRPC $75,000 a year to help administer the district, Warner said, which NIRPC will have to match.

The new funding obligation came up in another discussion as members discussed a resolution asking the Indiana General Assembly to increase the money NIRPC gets from its three member counties.

In 1992, the legislature set the contribution from each county at 70 cents per resident and it hasn’t changed since. Earlier this year, the NIRPC board passed a resolution asking the legislature to raise the per-capita amount to 96 cents.

But that resolution passed too late to be incorporated into legislation. A new resolution, presented at the meeting, noted that NIRPC will need more funding to run the economic development district.

Chesterton Town Council member Jim Ton said he didn’t think the higher contribution to NIRPC would be a problem in his growing community. But Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. said new property tax limits this year are creating “tough times” in Lake County communities.

The latest resolution passed on a voice vote with a few nays, including McDermott’s. It will be presented to the legislature in next year’s session.

Asked if NIRPC could pay its additional $75,000 obligation for the economic development district without a funding increase, Warner said NIRPC could “cobble together” money from its existing budget next year, but not in subsequent years.
Copyright © 2020, Chicago Tribune