The Lake County Economic Alliance of Indiana
Driving jobs and investment
Business View Magazine interviews Karen Lauerman, President of the Lake County Economic Alliance of Indiana, as part of our focus on business development.
Lake County, Indiana, population approximately 500,000, is located in the northwest portion of the state, some 43 miles southeast of Chicago, Illinois. The county has a total area of 627 square miles and is a mixture of urban, suburban, and rural areas. Originally inhabited by Potawatomi tribes, Lake County was established in 1837. It began to grow slowly in the 1850s when the railroads arrived to link Chicago to the rest of the country and enabled tens of thousands of settlers and immigrants to buy land. The arrival of the steel industry jump-started the county’s population explosion in the early 1900s and other industries, such as automobiles, oil, chemicals, consumer goods, food processing, and construction supply, also found the county to be an ideal location because of its cheap land and well-developed transportation networks.
Lake County’s population peaked at 546,000 in 1970, after which it suffered a 20-year industrial decline brought on by foreign competition and productivity gains from new technologies. The falloff was particularly intense in the steel industry: steel employment exceeded 60,000 in the 1960s, and declined progressively to just 18,000 by 2015. In 2013, the Lake County Economic Alliance of Indiana (LCEA) was created with the goal of driving jobs and investment to Lake County.
More specifically, the Lake County Economic Alliance’s role is to:
- Promote stability, growth, and development of business and industry in Lake County, Indiana
- Recruit new and retain existing business, jobs, and investment
- Market Lake County to site selectors and companies through conferences, tradeshows, and media outlets
- Respond promptly to inquiries, gather information, and provide area knowledge
- Maintain a comprehensive database of available property information and listings
- Share incentive information and provide local support
- Assist small businesses in conjunction with the Chambers of Commerce, the Northwest Indiana Small Business Development Corporation, the Regional Development Company, and the Small Business Administration’s (SBA) 504 and 7A loan programs
“The Lake County Economic Alliance was created out of the necessity for a county-centric, non-partisan, economic development group for the county and its 20 municipalities,” explains Karen Lauerman, the Alliance’s President and CEO. “The catalyst organizations for this change were our two largest Chambers of Commerce – Crossroads and Lakeshore, representing four of the largest municipalities in the county; the Northwest Indiana Forum, which is our seven-county, regional economic development group; the Indiana Economic Development Corporation (IEDC), which is our state economic development entity; and NIPSCO (Northern Indiana Public Service Company), which is our regional utility.
“Those groups were encouraged by then Governor Daniels to put together an organization to capitalize on the opportunities of Lake County, Indiana, being the second-largest, most populous county in the state, with immediate proximity to the third-largest market in the country, which is the City of Chicago and its suburbs; and to take advantage of the fact that from Lake County, you can reach two thirds of the U.S. population, plus some of Canada within a day’s drive. We are at the crossroads of America because we, literally, have every major piece of infrastructure – road, rail, air, water – all within our footprint, plus we have the assets of the Chicago area, which include Midway and O’Hare Airports. But more importantly, we wanted to capitalize on the fact that we had very diverse opportunities, from small retail in downtown districts; to large-scale greenspace for significant development of industrial and business parks; to brownfield, remediated opportunities; to big box stores and aged, industrial facilities that can be repurposed into new opportunity.”
Lauerman joined the Lake County Economic Alliance in 2014 with a mandate to make sure that the organization was well-run, sustainable, and positioned for growth. “Our County Commissioners have worked with us to fund the operation and our private sector funding is growing because of the commitment that the Commissioners made,” she states. “So, we were able to utilize available economic development funds for economic development activities.” Going forward, Lauerman notes that the Lake County Economic Alliance is focused on business attraction and retention, as well as expansion of its existing core of companies. “Part of our goals that we’re moving toward is identifying developable land spaces and sites because we know that not everyone will fit into a 50,000-sq.-ft. building, nor will they fit on one or two acres. We have clients that we’re working with, now, that are looking at up to 280-300 acres and some more than that.”
Manufacturing is still the county’s number one employer. “In 2017, 60 percent of our 320 site selection leads were in manufacturing,” Lauerman reports. “It continues to diversify from our traditional steel and refining operations into other types of manufacturing – containers and packaging, food products, solar and alternative energy components, extruded plastics, and a variety of other sectors. But our legacy institutions also continue to modernize and invest. Recently, BP completed a very large modernization project – approximately $5 billion of investment. We also had a very large announcement by US Steel about investment in their operation in Gary, and so, we’re seeing that throughout Lake County.”
“Distribution of products is second,” Lauerman continues. “That includes ecommerce and third party logistics. We’ve seen a progressive interest in this sector because of our location and proximity to the consumer market and our location in the product supply chain for a lot of these distribution companies. About 32 percent of the leads in 2018 were in this category and we anticipate that that’s going to grow in 2019.”
A specific program for 2019, according to Lauerman, is called Properties, Projects, and Possibilities. “The Properties part of it is enhancing our current site database, populated not only with existing buildings but with potential sites – retail, office, and medical,” Lauerman says. “That’s a huge leap forward, because Lake County has many properties available and having a solid inventory is critical to our success in being to respond to client needs.” For the Projects portion, Lauerman reports that the LCEA has recently acquired a specialized customer management software system that can be populated with all the projects that is has worked on, and still working on, in order to provide comprehensive reports on same.
“Our job is to help get companies the information they need: demographic, consumer spending, labor pool, average wage per job, etc.,” Lauerman adds. “We’ve got the ability to pull in and distribute a lot of information so that they have a one-stop-shop. With all of these types of industries, healthcare is also a staple in northwest Indiana and, in particular, Lake County. All sorts of medical services are available to address the growing population pockets of the county. So, we’re using Lake County Economic Alliance to be the clearing house for all of these leads, prospects, and general inquiries.”
Finally, promoting and marketing Lake County is an ongoing operation, with Lauerman utilizing all available resources to talk about all of the advantages of doing business there, including the state’s AAA bond rating and a constitutional tax structure that caps residential property tax raises at one percent, multi-family residences at two percent, and commercial and industrial properties at three percent. “That means that our tax certainty is much better than many of our neighbors and other states throughout the country,” she avers. “So, when you talk about the cost of doing business, that helps provide a level of confidence that there’s not going to be a tax hike tomorrow. The other thing that we have in Indiana: our workman’s compensation is much more affordable for companies.”
Regarding the county’s workforce, Lauerman maintains that it strong, stable, and readily available. In addition, the area is home to nine universities and colleges including multi-campuses of Purdue University, Indiana University, Ivy Tech Community College, and Calumet College of St. Joseph, plus access to the City of Chicago’s universities and campuses.
“Lake County is unified and working together for one common goal: to drive jobs and investment to Lake County, to put our folks to work, and to make sure that they were earning quality wages,” Lauerman states, in conclusion. “And so, when you take the assets and advantages of Lake County, Indiana and our proximity to Chicago, and you layer on the cost benefits to being in Indiana, you make a compelling case for attracting business to this county. We have very aggressive communities that are willing to work with clients to ensure that they come onboard and that it’s a win-win for the client and the community.”
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AT A GLANCE
WHO: The Lake County Economic Alliance of Indiana
WHAT: A business development organization
WHERE: Merrillville, Indiana