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IU President tours Port of Indiana, watches steel-making process during NWI visit

As part of IU Northwest visit, Michael McRobbie learns about the economic engines unique to region and their impact on state

Monday Nov 16, 2015

Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie, IU Northwest Chancellor William J. Lowe, and colleagues got an up-close look at some of Northwest Indiana’s most powerful economic engines during a tour Thursday of the Port of Indiana – Burns Harbor.

The tour was part of McRobbie’s visit to IU Northwest, one of seven IU campuses that he is visiting throughout the 2016-17 academic year to emphasize IU's commitment to all regions of the state as well as strengthen campus connections with community and state leaders. Learning more about Northwest Indiana’s advantageous position as a maritime hub, as well as a look into the region’s primary product, seemed an obvious fit for McRobbie’s visit.

Port Director Rick Heimann led a tour of the operation, one of a three-port system in Indiana which moves about 70 million tons of cargo — to the tune of about $1.89 billion — annually. The port’s location on Lake Michigan, combined with coordinated efforts with its sister ports in Mount Vernon, Ind., and Jeffersonville, Ind., both located on the Ohio River, provides a unique ability to connect Indiana to virtually all the ports in the world.

“What a lot of people don’t realize is that we are in the heartland of the U.S., yet we are just six or seven sailing days away from the Atlantic Ocean,” Heimann said. “The state of Indiana is able to provide transportation logistics, using not only the Great Lakes, the St. Lawrence Seaway and via the oceans to the world, but also the inland river system which connects to us here at the port.”

McRobbie and colleagues began the tour with a drive past the port’s 30 tenant companies, which include at least 10 steel companies and three steel mills. Heimann said the port has room to grow, with some 100 acres available to companies who want to locate here and take advantage of the complex multi-modal transportation system that moves international cargo by ship, barge, rail and highway. Heimann said the maritime and logistical assets that attracted those steel companies here will continue to attract agricultural companies, limestone companies, among others.

Seeing firsthand the operation that gave Northwest Indiana the title of steel capital of the world, the group then walked through the facility at NLMK Indiana. NLMK is known in the industry as a “mini mill,” a facility that makes steel by melting scrap metal, unlike the fully integrated operations of US Steel and Arcelor Mittal, also tenants at the port.

As the group prepared for the NLMK tour, H.B. Kincaid, Director of Operations, offered a few numbers to illustrate the current state of steel manufacturing. He said imports of semi-finished and finished steel products coming into the U.S. are at the highest level ever -- bad news for a steel-producing region.

Asked by McRobbie about the price of steel right now, Kincaid said it has “sunk like a lead balloon.”

“We are approaching pricing levels that are similar to the 2009 period of time,” Kincaid said. “All of us can recall what happened in late 2008, 2009 as far as the economy in the U.S.”

McRobbie asked Heimann about the port’s capacity for foreign trade and whether the port could increase its capacity. Heimann acknowledged that this is a primary objective of the port.

“One of our most pressing issues, or goals, is more global traffic,” Heimann said. “I need more companies in Indiana who source or know how to source in foreign markets and know how to sell or at least identify how to sell in those foreign markets.”

Heimann imagined that, perhaps, Indiana University experts would undertake research that will lead to developing such opportunities.

“We are always in need of support for multi-modal freight transportation research projects, especially on a global level,” Heimann said. “We would love to hear from the University about how we might be able to utilize the ports either in the sourcing of the raw materials or in the delivery of the finished good to a customer. That is bringing business, jobs, economic impact to the state.”

Chancellor Lowe said he is excited about the potential resources that a heightened awareness of our region’s economic strengths and opportunities could bring with the support of Indiana University.

“President McRobbie requested this tour to better understand the economic drivers of our region, so that IU can best focus its resources on enhancing opportunities for growth in Northwest Indiana and the entire state,” Lowe said. “A greater awareness of the region’s unique advantages, needs and opportunities, such as the personal tour we received today, can only lead to more focused efforts to further develop our assets. I look forward to the partnerships that IU and IU Northwest can facilitate in cooperation with the Ports.”

McRobbie’s full visit to IU Northwest included a roundtable discussion with local reporters, and a call-in moderated discussion with representatives of local Chambers of Commerce. 

McRobbie enjoyed a lunchtime chat with IU Northwest students who summarized their recent efforts to raise awareness of philanthropy on campus and raise money toward scholarships.

The day’s events concluded with the Chancellor’s Medallion Celebration and Bicentennial Campaign Launch, the campus’s annual event recognizing those who support student scholarships.

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