HAMMOND — Northwest Indiana is similar to the rest of the state in its need to grow its population of post-secondary degree holders, and to address some of the health concerns plaguing the state, but it also offers a strong business environment, according to data shared Tuesday by the Indiana Chamber of Commerce at forum at the Indiana Welcome Center.

And the Region has unique, unrealized opportunities that can help advance its economy and quality of life, a panel of chamber executives and local economic development experts suggested.

The forum was part of an Indiana chamber tour discussing the 2019 "report card" for its Vision 2025 plan, which was published in 2012 and now includes 65 metric-based goals comparing Indiana to the other 49 states.

While the state has improved in post-secondary education rates, it still ranks in the low 30s among the states. And the seven-county area of Northwest Indiana is behind the state in associate- and bachelor-degree holders, with 32.6% of Indiana residents holding an associate's degree, and 22.6% holding a bachelor's degree.

The Region's poverty rate is slightly higher than the state's (12.4% to 11.2%) and its per capita income is lower ($27,171 to $28,323), according to the chamber report card. Further, its domestic migration is negative, while the state's is strongly in positive territory.

But, the Region has outperformed the state in two prominent health categories — its adult smoking rate of 19.1% is below the state's 21.8%, and its rate of drug deaths is also lower. The state ranks 44th nationally in smoking rate, and 37th in drug deaths.

The chamber acknowledges that advancement in the health categories is critical, and more progress on education is essential, to provide an adequately productive workforce. The organization's president and CEO, Kevin Brinegar, said that the plan, both in its positives and negatives, is a useful guide for advancing the interests of business.

"We will have gotten a lot further by virtue of having the plan, and working toward the goals, than by not having the plan," he said. "This still remains the guiding star for our policy advocacy."

He said the state has excelled in recent years in creating a strong environment for business, including in taxation and its regulatory regime. The state is among the top 10 nationally in job creation at firms over 6 years old — though it lags the nation significantly at job creation at newly formed firms — and Indiana is one of the top 10 exporters in the country.

"We have the best business climate and economy in the Midwest and one of the best in the U.S.," Brinegar said. "We have more job openings than we have job seekers."

Northwest Indiana has particular promise with projects like the South Shore Line's West Lake Corridor and Double Track projects, he said, which required coordination among a variety of state, county and local agencies.

"Particularly, in recent years, I've really seen this area be less parochial," Brinegar said. "Certainly, different municipalities and counties have made great progress in thinking and acting collectively."

Projects like commuter rail, he said, "will accelerate the inflow of talented people into the Region."

In addition to Brinegar, Tuesday's panel included Northwest Indiana Forum President and CEO Heather Ennis, Center of Workforce Innovations President and CEO Linda Woloshansky, Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority President and CEO Bill Hanna and Lakeside Wealth CEO Mark Chamberlain.

Among the topics the panel and audience discussed was the opportunity that Chicago presents, but the challenge of convincing people and businesses across the state line of what Northwest Indiana offers, as part of the Chicago area.

Hanna suggested identifying the people and organizations in Illinois who could benefit from that relationship, so that it's "not just us trying to earn our way into that market, but working with the employers that are there now, showing the advantages of recognizing us as an opportunity for them."

Ennis said the chamber's biennial report card showed that "nothing happens overnight," but that there is a strong correlation between state and regional goals.

"It's great to see not only how we collaborate in the Region, but how we can collaborate across the state," she said. "It's exciting to see how closely aligned our agenda is."
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