BY SUSAN ERLER, Times of Northwest Indiana 
serler@nwitimes.com

PORTAGE | Area residents are being called upon to speak up about their hopes for Northwest Indiana's future.

Regional planners began meeting Wednesday to prepare for a Dec. 6 event expected to attract as many as 700 area residents wishing to add their voices to a comprehensive plan for the future of Northwest Indiana.

The Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission, responsible for delivering the plan to state and federal agencies, met with about 30 members of an advisory committee helping to prepare for the Future of Northwest Indiana Summit in December and meetings in Lake, Porter and LaPorte counties in October.

"We're relying heavily on them to give us good advice on how to prepare for the county meetings and for the summit," NIRPC planning director Steve Strains said.

"They are the individuals who are leaders in their own right or represent an organization. They're a diverse set who can help us to reach out to lots of people in Northwest Indiana to be sure that the people at the summit closely match the demographics of Northwest Indiana."

Washington D.C.-based consulting company America Speaks has been hired to work with NIRPC to facilitate the meetings, Strains said.

The comprehensive plan for the future will focus on the areas of transportation, economic development, social equity, land use and the environment.

Some issues already have begun emerging for possible discussion at the meetings, including the revitalization of some of the region's older communities, Strains said.

The creation of the summit to look at future needs was driven by NIRPC's responsibility for delivering an updated transportation plan every four years and a desire to engage the public, Strains said.

"We know there's a relationship between transportation and all the rest of it," including land use, economic development and other focuses, Strains said.

"If we can produce a comprehensive plan where transportation is not out there on its own, we decided do it in a more participatory and engaging way."

Dates for the meetings in the three counties have not yet been set but are expected to take place in late October, Strains said.

The deadline for delivering the comprehensive plan to federal and state agencies in mid-2011.

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