The last day of April, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels traveled to Gary and delivered a clear message to a few hundred business leaders and officials gathered at the Genesis Convention Center: The people of Northwest Indiana, Daniels said, need to work harder to make the region an economic engine for the state.
It’s hard to imagine anyone working harder to reach that goal than Mark Maassel, who was of course in attendance at the luncheon. As the new president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Forum, Maassel is uniquely positioned to help ensure the region emerges from the recession to become the economic engine that Daniels and Northwest Indiana’s 850,000 residents want to see power prosperity.
“This was a true recession—for the most part, it impacted everyone,” Maassel says. “But I think businesses here in Indiana have done better for a number of reasons.” The recession—from which most area business leaders now believe NWI is steadily recovering—would have impacted the region much more deeply if not for its basic strengths, Maassel says: a “superb” dedicated workforce bolstered by great educational institutions; close proximity to Chicago; excellent infrastructure; and business-friendly environment.
“The fact that Indiana has not raised taxes is very important,” says Maassel, who lives in Valparaiso, the school board of which he began serving on last year. “The last thing you want to do during a recession is raise the cost of doing business.”
After more than 30 years of working in Northwest Indiana as an engineer, lawyer and executive—he was president of the Northern Indiana Public Service Company (NIPSCO) from 2004 to 2008 and a vice president of NiSource for eight years before that—Maassel, 55, certainly knows the region’s business environment better than most.
Since taking over the Forum in January (he had been chair of its board), Maassel has been clear that the mission of the member-based organization—which claims more than 130 members from throughout the four-county region—will remain the same under his watch: “We make sure we put Northwest Indiana’s best foot forward.”
All the Forum’s work is fundamentally about “creating high-quality jobs and maintaining and enhancing our environment,” he says.
Beyond getting the word out to companies interested in moving to or expanding their operations in Northwest Indiana, Maassel overseas the Forum’s efforts to strengthen specific areas of the region’s infrastructure—which is the base of all future growth. Right now, the Portage-based organization is focusing its efforts in two areas: pushing for the Illiana Expressway project, which would connect Interstate 65 in Lake County to Interstate 55 in Illinois’ Will County, and filling in gaps in knowledge about Northwest Indiana’s fiber-optic networks through a comprehensive research project.
The fiber optic project is a prime example of the uniquely regional work the forum does to lay the groundwork for future growth. It will produce a “fiber optic asset map” detailing the region’s fiber-optic strengths and weaknesses. To draw many types of businesses to the area, Maassel says, “you have to add fiber optic to [the network], you need to have solid data communications.” After it is unveiled in June, the report will be put in the hands of economic development professionals, who may attract capital for laying additional fiber.
With decades of experience working and volunteering for a variety of organizations in the region, Maassel is sure that a better future for the region can only be charted and secured through partnership. “I’ve spent a considerable amount of time not just inside of NIPSCO, not just inside the Forum, building partnerships so we can build together in a common direction,” says Maassel, who has sat on the boards of countless organizations, including Ivy Tech Community College Foundation, Harris Bank Northwest Indiana and the Indiana Humanities Council. “Anything that’s as important and broad as Northwest Indiana, we really need to think outside of ourselves to move the agenda forward.”
There are clear signs that a full recovery to the recession is on its way, he says, pointing to BP’s expansion of its Whiting oil refinery and ArcelorMittal’s recent decision to expand steel production at its East Chicago plant. “You’re starting to see companies all over the place expand themselves,” Maassel says. “You see people starting to vote with their feet, voting with their dollars. Let’s make sure those companies get here.”
After rising to the top of the region’s business world, he’s happy to give back by supporting the overall growth of the region. “This community has allowed my wife and I to raise our children. In many ways, that leaves us with the obligation to see if we can build this region for the future,” Maassel says. The Forum “is a great vehicle to use to help build the area.”