Here in Northwest Indiana, we often hear predictions of decline. But, imagine what would happen if we work together to reverse the trends of recent history.
In a recent report, demographer Matt Kinghorn predicted a significant population loss in both Lake and La Porte counties through 2050. Kinghorn aptly noted his analysis, based on current population trends, did not account for “efforts to stabilize or reverse population loss,” such as double-tracking and expanding the South Shore Line and positioning Northwest Indiana as more of a bedroom community to Chicago.
Many in the community have great interest in Purdue University Northwest’s plans for the future of our Westville Campus. While Purdue Northwest (PNW) remains committed to La Porte County, where we have served for more than 70 years, recently I addressed this very question with the head of our own Faculty Senate. My response focused on strategies to stabilize enrollment through recruiting and retaining talented students, remaining competitive through scholarships, and continuing to expand the quality of our academic programs and instruction. But I also talked about the importance of the double-tracking of the South Shore in La Porte County.
PNW’s growth, and our Westville Campus in particular, will be closely linked to commuting options from Michigan City to downtown Chicago. Another South Shore track in the next five years could stimulate population growth in the region. Shorter commute times should draw more families to the area; families likely with younger children who eventually will go to college. I suggest that, in 15 to 25 years, we would know if doubling the track was successful in reversing declining population trends, and thus, assure that PNW-Westville becomes even stronger and more vibrant.
Conditions exist, though, in other areas across Northwest Indiana where a South Shore expansion as well as redevelopment of aging areas could be the catalyst for economic growth and redevelopment. Take Gary, for example. While Kinghorn predicted a decline in Lake County’s population through 2050, is it imaginable that Gary will be overlooked for the next 32 years? My experience is that in a metropolitan area with the vast amount of land and proximity to a major waterway as Gary offers, it seems very unlikely.
Or consider Munster, a town with increasing older adult and declining school age populations. My prediction is that as the South Shore expansion moves south, more homes will turn over from retirees to younger families enticed by Munster’s wonderful schools and community life.
Another important asset Northwest Indiana has in reversing projected population declines are its people – those truly dedicated to the future of the region. One Region, the Northwest Indiana Forum, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District (NICTD), Northwestern Indiana Regional Planning Commission (NIRPC), and the Regional Development Authority (RDA), among others, are focused on stimulating job growth, population growth, and enriching the quality of life for all current and future residents. It is my hope that the number of people getting involved in these efforts will grow with time and so, too, the population.
Population trends function much like a pendulum – once reaching a low point, they will swing upwards. Once communities like Gary and Munster start up, they will prime the pump of success. With time, one can envision the landscape of these and other communities in the region evolving. Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson is engaging citizens in a new comprehensive plan for the city. In Munster, the Centennial Village development, a mixed-use, walkable community is sprouting from a former industrial site just north of a beautiful park that is located on a former landfill. One can only assume that, as the South Shore Line expands, investors would want to continue to purchase properties and change the face of portions of our region.
Thomas L. Keon is Chancellor of Purdue University Northwest.