Chancellor Thomas L. Keon, Purdue University Northwest
July 24, 2018
Prior to coming to Northwest Indiana (NWI) seven years ago, I served as the dean of the business college at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando. Those years provided a wealth of knowledge gained through hands-on experience.
Today, Orlando is a world-class metropolitan region. However, when I arrived there 21 years ago, it wasn’t much different from the NWI region of today. Back then, many Orlando citizens thought the tourist destinations (Disney, Universal and Sea World) were enough; why do more to grow? Plus, they hated the thought of paying more taxes, as much as anyone else.
Part of my role as dean was becoming immersed in economic development in the greater Orlando region. An important part of this role was understanding the many facets of tourism; a new venture for a business person with my background. With a department of Hospitality Management in the college, I was quickly thrust into an industry that many business professionals overlook. Is “tourism” a job, or a place one goes to have fun? Turns out, it is both. It can also be an important driver of economic development for a geographic region as well.
We have the first step right in front of us to make NWI a stronger destination opportunity. The Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority and Lake County have conducted a feasibility study to bring a convention center to NWI. Indiana could use a facility like this since state level associations no longer have good locations to hold conventions in NWI. Likewise with various airports nearby, we could go well beyond Indiana to attract national and international conventions to the region.
Of course, a new convention center comes at a cost. Often these types of projects are either community funded or are private/public partnerships. Today, many progressive metropolitan areas—as well as colleges and universities—look toward private/public partnerships for investments that are mutually beneficial to the investor and the area.
Back when Orlando was considering these issues, area hotel owners and operators—especially those along the now famous International Drive (I-Drive)—wanted more for the region. They carefully managed taxes from their industry to help bolster economic development in the area. This generated much of the funding to expand the area’s convention facilities. Additionally, Orlando residents had little concern because the funding, for the most part, was derived from people outside Orlando, outside Florida, and often outside the United States.
This was very eye opening to me as a professor of business and economics. Optimizing a geographic area through revenue generated by visitors, rather than citizens. What a brilliant business strategy! Create a destination that brings outside income into the area and take advantage of the economic opportunities it produces. During this same time, Orlando’s infrastructure was enhanced using the same strategy—toll roads primarily supported by visitors helped build, over a 20 year period, an optimum infrastructure.
Here in NWI, we must consider ways to generate public funding to move the convention center project, and others like this, forward. One option which makes great sense is a food and beverage tax increase to support the convention center. As a former Orlando(ite), I can tell you with time the tax would be primarily supported by people other than citizens of NWI. Why not have state of the art facilities and become a Midwest destination through the support of those that visit our wonderful lakefront attractions.