Uncertainty looms over the future of U.S. Steel, a long-standing economic pillar in the Calumet Region. The steelmaker, based in Pittsburgh, is currently in discussions with potential buyers after rejecting a $7.3 billion bid from rival Cleveland-Cliffs. U.S. Steel, which has been a major employer in the Calumet Region and the founder of the city of Gary, could potentially disappear from the landscape, much like the once-thriving Inland Steel and Bethlehem Steel. Over the years, there has been a noticeable decrease in community engagement from U.S. Steel, according to Heather Ennis, the president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Forum.
The economic development leaders of the Region have been actively working to diversify beyond the steel industry, which has long been the foundation of the local economy. Regardless of the fate of U.S. Steel, these leaders are focused on creating new job opportunities and economic growth for the residents of Northwest Indiana, in order to adapt to an ever-evolving economy. Ennis believes that, even if the steel industry continues to thrive, it will be done with fewer employees. This is why infrastructure projects, such as the quantum corridor, double-tracking, and West Lake projects, are being pursued as game-changers to attract talent and investment.
Due to the decline of the domestic steel industry, the Region’s economy has been diversifying for the past four decades. The goal is to connect better with Chicago and build a future economy that is not solely reliant on steel. Ennis mentions that they are currently in the application process for the tech hub of the Chicago Quantum Exchange, with participation from institutions like Argonne Laboratory and Fermi Labs. The aim is to leverage the assets and advantages of Northwest Indiana, such as logistics, proximity to Chicago, and technological assets, to foster growth and diversification.
Economic development leaders acknowledge that they have limited influence over publicly traded companies like U.S. Steel. However, they are open to investment if a new owner takes over the steel mills in Gary Works, Midwest Plant, and East Chicago Tin. These mills support numerous downstream firms, suppliers, contractors, transportation companies, and service centers in Northwest Indiana. Ennis emphasizes the importance of these assets in maintaining a strong position in integrated steel, while also aspiring to grow and diversify the economy.
The Region boasts other major clusters, such as air compressor businesses in Michigan City and a growing food processing sector with investments by companies like Albanese, BNutty, American Licorice, and Chicagoland Popcorn. While steel has played a significant role in the Region’s economy, there is a need to diversify in order to adapt to changing industries and international competition. The Region possesses assets like proximity to Chicago, a skilled workforce, universities, and the Ignite the Region regional plan for economic development, which can help attract more investment in sectors like technology and distribution. Babcock, the President of the Lake County Economic Alliance, highlights the importance of having objectives and a strategy to drive economic growth.