Calumet Collaborative’s board members, advisory council and staff met in June to take the first steps on four key initiatives that will shape the organization’s work over the next several years and advance its mission to foster a new level of collaboration in sustainable development and create a thriving Calumet region.
The four bi-state initiatives are exploring and aligning brownfield redevelopment strategies, implementing a bi-state wayfinding system, advancing the Calumet National Heritage Area and advancing comprehensive conservation strategies.
“Our intention at Calumet Collaborative is to build on the great work that has been done in the region,” says Sarah Coulter, Calumet Collaborative acting executive director. “We are working with communities and organizations to support the transformation of the Calumet region – and a future that is sustainable and inclusive.”
The advisory council’s 39 members include equal representation from Illinois, Indiana, and bi-state organizations, as well as economic, community and environmental stakeholders. At the meeting, they identified potential projects that could drive each initiative. Work groups including additional organizations and volunteers will meet later this summer to hone the project ideas.
“The Calumet Collaborative provides a unique opportunity to align and leverage resources that transcend traditional political boundaries in support of established sustainable development principles that align economic and community development goals in tandem with environmental conservation outcomes,” says Bill Steers, Calumet Collaborative board of directors chair and ArcelorMittal Americas Communications & Corporate Responsibility general manager. “With input from advisory council members and their organizations, it is clear that our partners believe this partnership will create a unique platform to advance sustainable development opportunities across the bi-state Calumet region.”
Calumet Collaborative covers southeast Chicago, south Cook County and northwest Indiana. It works across agencies, organizations and research institutions utilizing public-private partnerships to leverage resources and provide greater impact than one organization can achieve on its own.
Calumet Collaborative: Initiatives
For decades, the challenge of brownfields – former industrial or commercial sites affected by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant - has affected the region as communities seek ways to fund and redevelop these properties and learn from examples of productive reuse.
“Brownfields are still very much an issue in our communities,” says Kristi DeLaurentiis, executive director of the South Suburban Mayors and Managers Association, whose work on the issue has included helping to run a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency brownfield revolving loan fund to clean up sites thoughout south Cook County.
DeLaurentiis sees great potential in bi-state collaboration on this issue. “The greater Calumet region is linked no matter where the state line bisects us,” she says. “We have to think of it holistically and as an integrated system. We are certainly stronger together.”
On the most basic level, wayfinding is about connecting people to places. It ties natural areas and recreation together for residents and visitors to enjoy. It includes directional and interpretive signage that helps not only guide, but educate. Calumet Collaborative’s wayfinding efforts will reflect the stories of many of the region’s treasures and how they connect to neighboring assets in Illinois and Indiana.
Kathy Schneider, who is the first superintendent of the Pullman National Monument, takes a broad approach to wayfinding. “We are not an island – we are part of a larger story. That’s a great benefit of Calumet Collaborative; it can help connect us to other stories in the region.” For Calumet Collaborative, Schneider says, the question is “What can we do to give people an orientation to our communities and the Calumet region?”
Calumet National Heritage Area
Calumet National Heritage Area aims to tell the nationally significant story of the Calumet region.
Mike Longan, Calumet Heritage Partnership president and Valparaiso University geography professor, says this effort can call attention to what is special about the region. “The thing that makes this region unique is the juxtaposition between industry and nature – the fact that we are this industrial powerhouse region but also this national treasure. We have to celebrate the innovation that occurs in industry and labor history, and the diverse people the region has attracted.”
The Calumet Heritage Partnership, with the support and participation of Calumet Collaborative, is in the process of submitting a feasibility study to the National Park Service to create a Calumet National Heritage Area.
Future working groups will help guide this process and coalesce with wayfinding to further identify, describe and celebrate the region.
Calumet Collaborative advisory council members have identified numerous conservation issues that affect communities in the region, including urban forestry and green infrastructure. Another prominent issue is the threat of invasive species. “We are all dealing with this problem - it’s a regional issue,” says Natalie Johnson, Save the Dunes executive director. “There is a great need for regional management of land that can be conserved. When you’re talking about invasive species, it’s clearly not an issue that is confined to one area or community.”
Johnson sees great potential in Calumet Collaborative to “increase the size of our canopy across the region. We can multiply our efforts,” she adds. “That’s the power of what collaboration can do.”
Steers and many others involved in the Collaborative emphasize that its role is not to replace current efforts or organizations, but to help build capacity in key focus areas. That could mean a wide range of things, from acting as a resource to groups that are trying to access funds, to providing information on important issues, to convening leaders from both states to focus on joint initiatives, and more.
Participants in all four work groups are developing actionable plans and projects.
The board of directors and advisory council will meet again on September 12 to discuss work group updates and progress and to determine what steps to take next.
If you’re interested in participating in a Calumet Collaborative work group, please contact Calumet Collaborative acting executive director Sarah Coulter at email@example.com.
This spring, Calumet Collaborative hired a communications manager as part of its strategic plan to grow the organization and provide staff capacity. Nichole DeMario has nearly a decade of communications experience. Most recently she worked for the Greater Northwest Indiana Association of REALTORS®, a trade association with more than 2,000 members covering Lake, Porter, LaPorte, Jasper, Newton, Starke and Pulaski counties, as Director of Communications and Professional Development. Her background also includes freelance writing on a local, state and national level; communications consulting and instructing public speaking courses at a local college.
DeMario’s family returned to Northwest Indiana when she was in kindergarten, a common move among many from the Region. She graduated from Lake Central High School. She was drawn to the opportunities that abounded in Chicago and opted to attend Columbia College Chicago for her undergraduate degree. She completed her B.A. in broadcast journalism in three years.
She is a graduate of Leadership Northwest Indiana Class 34 and Times’ Media Company 20 Under 40 award recipient. She volunteers with numerous organizations and currently chairs the group charged with bringing TEDxCountyLineRoad to Northwest Indiana.
She and her husband currently live in Crown Point with their two dogs. When her husband isn’t in the throws of studying for the bar exam, they can be found exploring the various local trail systems; hopping on the South Shore to dabble in their collective amateur photography hobby, taking in a play or grabbing pizza at their favorite restaurant Giordano’s and traveling.
DeMario was drawn to the work of the Calumet Collaborative because she has seen the assets and opportunities available in the Calumet region nearly her entire life. She wants to play a larger role in the solution and forward momentum, helping to shore up gaps and bring people together in ways that have never been done before.
“Being part of the Calumet Collaborative team at such an early stage of its existence has been the most thrilling, challenging time in my career. I am enamored by the organizations, companies and community groups already involved and can’t wait to see what the future has in store as we work together to advance the Calumet region,” DeMario says.