Indiana University Northwest hosted two esteemed alumni on campus April 7 during a Public Affairs Week event sponsored by the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. Indiana 1st District U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Merrillville) and Munster Clerk-Treasurer Dave Shafer both participated in a panel discussion that touched on a variety of Northwest Indiana-related issues.
Visclosky was a 1970 graduate of IU Northwest with a B.S. degree in accounting. He went on to earn his law degree from Notre Dame in 1973 and his master’s degree in international and comparative law from Georgetown University in 1982. Shafer was a graduate of Purdue University in 1972, and he earned his master’s degree in public administration from IU Northwest in 2005.
“It’s really good to be back on the campus of IU Northwest,” said Shafer, who is in his third term as Munster’s clerk-treasurer, and who served on the Munster Town Council before that. “In very polite circles, I was known as a mid-career student. I used to love to walk across the campus, because my fellow students would see my gray hair, and they would mistake me for faculty, I think. They would smile at me and hold the door for me. I enjoyed that part.”
Visclosky, too, said he was glad to return to the campus of his alma mater, and he recalled that his first English class at IU Northwest was held in the basement of one of the 35th Avenue apartment buildings across the street from the Library Conference Center.
“I certainly have fond recollections of those days,” he said.
The Congressman commented favorably on the large number of students in attendance at Tuesday’s event, and he noted that one student had given him a signed petition calling for greater U.S. action to address the violent, ongoing catastrophe in the Darfur region of Sudan.
“I appreciate not only your pursuit of your education, looking for a career that is going to make a contribution to our society, but also your involvement in social issues and your social conscience,” Visclosky said.
Shafer and Visclosky were joined at the event by former IU Northwest SPEA professor Dan Lowery, Ph.D., who is now the Vice President for Academic Affairs at Calumet College of St. Joseph, and William Hanna, who is the new executive director of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.
The title of the program was “Change in Washington and the Impact on Northwest Indiana: The First 100 Days,” but the real theme that connected the evening’s assorted topics was the need for the region’s citizens and public officials to think and act, well, regionally.
“We all live in a specific community, but we all work within a region,” said Shafer, who is on the Board of Directors for the National Association of Regional Councils, and who in 2005 was chair of the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission.
“We educate ourselves within a region,” he said. “We shop regionally. Everything we do is within a region. We ought to be recognizing, then, that the region as a whole needs to prosper. If one of our communities within our region fails, then we all fail. Conversely, if one prospers, then we all prosper.”
This talk of regionalism was particularly trenchant for Hanna, whose RDA was facing the prospect of revolt by the Porter County Council, which was expected to vote at an April 8 meeting on whether to withdraw from the development authority. Regardless of how that vote came out, Hanna vowed to work with other proponents of regional development to push the idea that Northwest Indiana must think and act as a cohesive regional community.
“Who here understands what the RDA is?” Hanna asked the audience of SPEA students, university faculty and community members. Only a few hands went up.
“OK, I’m going to take that to mean that we have a marketing issue, and we’ll start working on that next week,” joked the director, who only began in his new post on April 1.
Hanna explained that the RDA was created in 2005 to help advance several critical Northwest Indiana initiatives, including proposed South Shore rail expansion, improvements to the Gary/Chicago International Airport, and the Marquette Plan lakeshore-development initiative, which Visclosky has championed since he first entered Congress almost 25 years ago.
“I want to invest in the lakeshore,” said Visclosky, who has helped to secure federal funding for some elements of the Marquette Plan. “I don’t live on the lakeshore. But (everyone) would benefit if we did the lakeshore right. My proposal is to have open, public, free space, a la Chicago, because that lake is everybody’s lake. You should not have to pay anybody to access Lake Michigan, which is part of the largest body of fresh water on the planet.”
Visclosky acknowledged that some Northwest Indiana residents are less than enthusiastic about contributing time and tax dollars toward projects that are located in the community next door or in the neighboring county. He conceded that some of this resistance has its roots in antiquated racial attitudes that can still be found in some areas of the region, prejudices that may lead some residents to dismiss any action or proposal that would benefit Northwest Indiana’s northern urban centers.
The Congressman expressed consternation about the persistence of such attitudes.
“Within the last year, when I was talking about potential improvements at the airport, I had somebody say this to me, that (the airport) ‘is just for white people to use.’ This was a resident of Gary, Ind. That’s a problem,” Visclosky said. “I had someone in south Lake County who was opposed to the South Shore extension to Lowell, and who said, ‘I don’t want them out here.’ This was 2008. I mean, in this day and age? Wake up!”
But Visclosky insisted that such prejudices reflect only a minority of opinion in Northwest Indiana.
“I have met an overwhelmingly larger number of people, tons of people every day, who do recognize that there is a problem, who are not racist, who want to move things along, and that renews my enthusiasm that progress can be made,” the Congressman said.
Hanna, a Valparaiso resident, expressed regret that some Porter County officials were calling for withdrawal from the RDA, and he insisted that Porter County residents are benefitting from their annual $3.5 million investment in it. He pointed to the substantial lakeshore improvements in the city of Portage as proof.
“The bottom line for the RDA is that we are about lifting up our collective assets,” said Hanna, who estimated that the RDA has invested $79 million in local funding over four years and has brought back more than $200 million in combined federal and state funding as a result. “We’re about knocking down walls and barriers to that. That is something that we’ve had here in our history for quite some time, and we should talk openly about this challenge.
“The Gary airport affects everybody. The lakeshore belongs to everybody. The train lines to Chicago are open to everybody,” he said. “If we have citizens who are suffering in areas where we need to make repairs and infrastructure, that affects everybody.”
During his formal remarks, Visclosky reflected on the early days of the Barack Obama administration, the ongoing recession, the banking crisis, healthcare, and other critical national issues.
“We have been busy since the day after the election last November, as far as efforts to try and resolve these issues,” the Congressman assured the audience. “It is my sense that, between now and the end of this year, or between now and the end of this Congress, the 111th Congress, that we will make discernible progress on these issues.
“It will not be pretty. It will not be steady. It will be very uneven. But I do believe that the occupant of the White House, President Obama, and the leadership of the Congress, understand that Americans are demanding action, and not just for the sake of busywork and looking like you’re getting something done, but to have some tangible results in the end.”