Underutilized vacant land has long been a challenge in the bi-state Calumet region but there are many that believe they are assets waiting to be developed. Many of these vacant or underutilized sites have an additional complication of being a brownfield. Together with several partners, Calumet Collaborative is working on a systemic approach to not only change that impression, but to develop innovative strategies and tools to reuse these areas in a way that’s never been done before.
Calumet Collaborative’s advisory council recognized both the potential and need for collective action around brownfields. As such, the advisory council determined bi-state brownfield redevelopment should be one of Calumet Collaborative’s four initiatives.
A brownfield is defined as a property that the expansion, redevelopment, or reuse is complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.
Calumet Collaborative will be utilizing a portion of a $50,000 Chicago Community Trust grant to support the work of the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) Institute of Design. A diverse group of masters and PhD students with varying academic backgrounds will take on a semester-long project to create solutions and regional regeneration strategies that focus on brownfield redevelopment through multi-system integration while engaging those not previously involved in this work.
Michael Davidson, Calumet Collaborative board member and Chicago Community Trust senior program officer in sustainable development says, “Calumet Collaborative can invest research dollars to elevate the discussion and determine why it’s been so difficult to make changes in this space and determine how we can improve the process. This project is a chance to conduct sustainable development in a unique way and reframe brownfields discussion from liability to asset, threat to opportunity.”
Associate Professor in Design, Carlos Teixeira, along with his colleagues, Associate Professor of Environmental Management and Sustainability, Weslynne Ashton, and adjunct faculty and PhD student Andre Nogueira, will be coordinating the IIT students’ efforts.
Dr. Teixeira adds, “Instead of seeing brownfields as a problem, we can see brownfields as the point of reference where new development can happen. They’re idle assets that are underutilized. They’re enhancers, not constrainers.”
The design project will run concurrently with a brownfield mapping and inventory project that is being led by experts from Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago and assisted by faculty and students from the University of Illinois at Chicago Nathalie P. Voorhees Center for Neighborhood and Community Improvement as part of their work as an EDA University Center. These coordinating efforts will be overseen and further directed by the Calumet Collaborative brownfields work group made up of advisory council members and other subject matter experts.
“By mapping existing assets, we can determine how they can be leveraged through brownfields with the end goal of building sustainable solutions,” Dr. Teixeira says.
The IIT team indicates pursuing brownfield research will provide the chance to scale up their existing tools to deeply impact the Calumet region.
“Brownfield redevelopment hasn’t seen a lot of innovation in a long time. We can provide stakeholders with a new set of lenses to work from,” Dr. Ashton details. “We don’t pretend to be brownfields experts, but can provide a proven platform for stakeholders to co-create.”
Davidson explains it’s important to note this new approach will be an aid to those already involved in brownfield redevelopment work.
He says, “It will not invalidate those efforts, but bring capacity to other organizations’ efforts to help them succeed.”
Gary resident Dereeka Rollins, a new mom who works for Gary’s Redevelopment Department, says she wants to see “businesses in Gary grow and offer more employment. So many people here are not employed.” To help achieve that goal, she’s working on a project with other residents to support a business incubator/co-working space for people in the city’s Miller Beach community. Known as The Stage, this repurposed building is bringing business to The Steel City.
Gretchen Sipp, another Gary resident, is The Stage Manager at the space. "I am a die-hard Gary citizen. I grew up in Gary. I've been in Gary for 30 years. It is my home. I've left, I've come back. I've left, I've come back. This is where I'm planted. So, for me, I want to see the true essence of what a Gary citizen looks like," says Sipp, adding, "…I think we are on the verge of something big."
Their effort is one of many in northwest Indiana to revitalize communities through the input and collaboration of local organizations and people who work and live there. For 25 years, the Legacy Foundation, which is based in Merrillville has been supporting this work through a wide variety of grants for programs and initiatives in Lake County communities. (The county is the second largest in the state). In the course of a year, the foundation typically gives out more than $800,000 in scholarships and between $1.3 and $1.8 million in grants, which range from about $2,000 to $25,000.
The foundation is not locked in to funding one particular issue but responds to community needs in a wide variety of areas. For example, the foundation funds a first of its kind medical-legal partnership for northwest Indiana between Indiana Legal Services and HealthLinc, which provides no-cost, civil legal aid to HealthLinc patients who are in need of legal services for issues related to their health. In Hammond, a Legacy Foundation grant expanded a youth career program to include training and internships in high-growth industries such as healthcare, IT and construction. In Gary, the foundation supported the state’s second fully ADA compliant canoe and kayak launch at Marquette Park. The Legacy Foundation donated $25,000 to help construct the launch, which provides access to Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
“The Legacy Foundation has focused on building philanthropy in Lake County,” says foundation president Carolyn Saxton. “What we’ve seen is that community foundations can promote philanthropy where they are located and make a difference that can hopefully be sustained over time.”
The foundation’s work is about more than making individual grants. The Legacy Foundation also encourages Lake County residents to consider how they might be more philanthropic in their long-term estate planning. As a result, over 300 charitable funds have been established that are financially managed by Legacy and support the charitable interests of individuals and organizations. This type of long-term philanthropy provides support for charitable projects identified by the donors not only for today but for years to come.
Legacy manages and promotes the local Donor Advised Fund for the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which funds a wide range of organizations and projects in Gary.
The foundation serves as a resource center to nonprofits, providing training for staff and board members on fundraising, organizational issues and other topics. In addition, the foundation offers scholarships to Lake County students as motivation to graduate high school and complete college.
In recent years, the foundation has been more proactive about how it reaches area communities. One prominent example is its Neighborhood Spotlight program, which was created in 2013. Through this program, residents from Hobart, Griffith, and Gary’s Miller Beach and Emerson communities identify and address key issues. “People in these communities determine what their priorities are,” says Saxton. “The Spotlight program is a catalyst that encourages community involvement and action.”
The foundation funds a “community builder” in each neighborhood – a person whose job is to engage residents in this process. (It’s similar, Saxton says, to what community organizers do.) “The idea is to get existing stakeholders – people who live here – at the table,” says Jessie Renslow, community builder for the program in Miller Beach, where issues identified by residents have included transportation, jobs, education and economic development. Renslow, who grew up in Gary, describes herself as a “multi generation Gary-ite” who lived in California before moving back to the area.
Renslow says, “The Legacy Foundation realized the importance of doing a community plan in our communities. When you have a community choose attainable goals, it can happen. People really buy into the process.”
Brenda Burch has been a community builder for the program in Gary’s Emerson community. The Gary native and former pastor says the Spotlight program supported a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis of Emerson. One major priority identified by residents, she says, is revitalizing Emerson School, which was closed in 2008 and, she says, could be reopened as a community center.
Meanwhile, Gary resident Zully Alvarado says the new canoe and kayak launch in Marquette Park reflects the community’s priorities – and is already affecting people on a personal level.
Alvarado has been an accessibility issues advocate for many years and uses a wheelchair. “I love what we’ve been able to do,” she says. “As a woman who is a wheelchair user, I never imagined that this would be available to me. People see me first as a paddler, not just as someone who’s in a chair.”
“The Neighborhood Spotlight program,” she adds, “is a model we can showcase for other communities.”
For more about the Legacy Foundation, click here.
The Calumet Collaborative held its second advisory council meeting on September 12. The goal of this meeting was to clarify and emphasize the roles of its board of directors, advisory council and working groups and to share how work is determined and organized to fulfill its mission of transformative sustainable development in the Calumet region.
The organization’s four working groups – explore and align bi-state brownfields redevelopment strategies; advance a bi-state wayfinding system; advance the Calumet National Heritage Area and advance comprehensive, bi-state conservation strategies reported out their progress and plans for the near and long-term.
There are nearly 450,000 brownfields throughout the United States and thousands in the Calumet region alone. A brownfield is a property in which, the expansion, redevelopment or reuse may be complicated by the presence or potential presence of a hazardous substance, pollutant or contaminant.
The Calumet Collaborative was recently awarded a grant from The Chicago Community Trust that will be used to collect bi-state brownfields data, identify the best practices used in the remediation of these sites and create a tool to assist in the redevelopment of brownfields in the Calumet region. The Calumet Collaborative Brownfields Working Group plans to examine the information collected to identify work already being done, to find gaps in the work and to prioritize and determine the highest and best use for these properties.
Calumet Collaborative’s Wayfinding Work Group is reviewing past successes and focusing their efforts on further engaging Indiana stakeholders. They will be revisiting past work that includes the narrative and concept development of the Calumet region.
This work aims to remedy the fact we live in a fragmented region that is difficult to navigate regardless of what mode of transportation you use. It aims to connect people to all significant assets of the area, including the many sites of Calumet heritage.
In line with the work group’s broader plan, conversations are in the works to consider how wayfinding and placemaking correlate with the bigger picture of regional identity and a cohesive regional brand that can be shared with the masses.
Calumet National Heritage Area
The Calumet Collaborative is focused on advancing the Calumet National Heritage Area (CNHA) through collaboration with the Calumet Heritage Partnership, The Field Museum and other stakeholders. A national heritage area is a National Parks Service program that recognizes areas of historical significance throughout the country. The CNHA is bookended by two national parks, Pullman National Monument and the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore.
The process of becoming a national heritage area has multiple steps. The CNHA has received positive feedback on the first draft of its feasibility study and is working with the NPS office in Washington D.C. to finalize their next draft.
While this process is underway, Calumet Collaborative’s CNHA Work Group will continue to focus on unique ways to shed light on the amazing stories of the Calumet region.
Natural areas in the Calumet region are in varied stages of management. Some have been well managed for years, others have had no land management at all. The Calumet Collaborative Conservation Work Group is working towards identifying gap areas in the region.
Progress is already underway to begin conservation action planning for three gap areas that include Oak Ridge/Hoosier Prairie, Moraine/Sunset Hill and Galena/Ambler Flatwoods. This planning will be completed through an Indiana Coastal Management non-competitive grant that will develop a strategic plan to collect data, prioritize parcels, convene stakeholders, fundraise for land acquisition and determine lead agencies for future work and management.
The conservation working group is also working on a long-term plan that will utilize the Chicago Wilderness Green Infrastructure Vision (GIV). They will use the extensive work of the GIV to identify and breakdown regional priorities into smaller, manageable and implementable projects.
“In a short period of time, Calumet Collaborative’s advisory council and work groups have created action-oriented plans that will catapult the good work already being done in the Calumet region to the next level,” Calumet Collaborative’s Acting Executive Director Sarah Coulter says. “We are eager to continue to convene to move the needle in the positive direction.”
If you, or an individual you know, has related, subject matter expertise and would like to be involved in Calumet Collaborative’s working groups or you have a project you feel is in alignment with our focus areas, please reach out to Acting Executive Director Sarah Coulter at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.