Past successes, future challenges

April 13, 2019

WESTVILLE — With several recent successes, such as the redevelopment of the former SpartanNash warehouse in Westville and the opening of the new Franciscan Health hospital in Michigan City, the fires of La Porte County’s economic engine are burning brighter and brighter.

Growing issues like aging public facilities and the “digital divide” between urban and rural residents, however, threaten to damper that blaze.

La Porte County Commissioners celebrated some important achievements and discussed solutions for many problems still facing the region during the fourth annual State of the County event, which took place Friday afternoon at the Purdue Northwest campus in Westville. The Michigan City Chamber of Commerce, the La Porte Economic Advancement Partnership and the Westville Area Chamber of Commerce hosted the event, with more than 100 local professionals and officials in attendance.

Each commissioner opened Friday’s roundtable discussion by sharing some of the successes La Porte County has enjoyed over the past year.

Commissioner Richard Mrozinski praised the new 123-bed Franciscan Health hospital, opened in Michigan City on Jan. 12, which he described as a “beautiful facility.” The commissioner also looks forward to the new acute care hospital Franciscan and Beacon Health System are building in La Porte, as well as La Porte Hospital’s new facility, which is currently under construction.

“Three new hospitals, right in La Porte County, is amazing to me,” Mrozinski said.

Commissioner Vidya Kora, the president of the board, highlighted a Missouri-based private development firm’s recent redevelopment of a 680,000-square-foot warehouse in Westville. Dollar General purchased a 250,000-square-foot space inside the former SpartanNash facility, where it plans to open a distribution center that could employ about 100 people, Kora said.

“More of those things will continue to happen at that facility,” the commissioner said.

Kora pointed toward other local economic success stories over the past year, including the Indiana Department of Workforce Development awarding the Innovation Network of La Porte County a $677,000 Skill UP 3 grant that will be used to support manufacturing education among local students.

Commissioner Sheila Brillson Matias, the board’s vice president, focused on the good health of the county’s coffers, saying that La Porte County is one of only four counties without any outstanding bond debt and that the budget has fallen within the state’s allowed growth quotient for the past six years. She also mentioned some positive figures from the sheriff’s department’s recently released 2018 annual report, which, among other stats, show that violent crime has fallen 5 percent and fatal crashes have fallen 35 percent compared to 2017.

Matias, who began her first term on the board this January, also mentioned she and the rest of the commissioners have made increased transparency a priority in recent months. Recent changes to the board’s meeting policies allow department heads to share progress updates with the public and give the audience a chance to comment on every item on the meeting agenda.

“On a controversial matter, where people come and want to be heard, that is a really, really big deal,” Matias said about the latter change. “We just want to be sure that the public really understands county government.”

The commissioners also discussed one of the major projects they plan on tackling this year — the proposed renovation and expansion of the 1909 La Porte County Courthouse in Michigan City. Earlier this month, the board unanimously approved a $22.49 million concept for the structure, which the county council has the final say on whether to fund.

If the council approves the plan, construction will likely begin later this year, Kora said. In addition to the expansion, the project will modernize the infrastructure of the existing courthouse.

“The historical nature of that building will be preserved,” Kora added.

Matias added that county officials are currently developing a capital improvement plan that will ensure crews properly maintain existing facilities and properties over the years to come.

On the subject of county-owned buildings, Mrozinski said he would like to see other leaders support a plan to purchase and renovate the Herald-Argus building, located next to the La Porte County Annex on State Street. Acquiring the property would give the county ownership of the entire block and would add several parking spots and office space for existing county departments, which could allow leaders to expand the nearby jail facility, Mrozinski said.

“Our jail is old, and jails are extremely expensive,” he said. “It’s something we kick around all the time…someday, we’re going to have to build a new jail or do some serious rehab on it.”

Another challenge facing La Porte County is a lack of quality broadband internet access for some residents living in rural parts of the area, Matias said. Universal access to high-speed internet would not only benefit families but could also help attract new businesses and medical facilities to set up shop in more remote parts of the county.

Even households that can get a connection to the internet often find speeds to be inadequate, often forcing parents to drive miles into town just so their children can use public Wi-Fi to complete homework assignments, Matias said.

“We’ve heard some horror stories about internet, to be honest,” Matias said. “There’s dark [unused] fiber…in the ground. It’s maybe 500 feet from a home. When [the homeowners] ask how they can get hooked up to that fiber, they’re told by one of our major [internet] companies that it will cost about $30,000.”

To address the issue, the commissioners have formed a rural broadband taskforce, which held its first meeting in March, to research the problem and come up with potential solutions. The county also plans to issue a survey to residents to see what problems they are experiencing with their internet service, Matias said.

Despite these and other problems looming on the horizon, the board president is confident the county commissioners will handle them as a united force. Compared to the partisan politics in Washington, the board votes unanimously a vast majority of the time, Kora said.

“We work together and get things accomplished here,” he said.