Sherri Ziller talks with the media after being appointed the new President/CEO of the Regional Development Authority during their meeting on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021 in Merrillville, In. (John Smierciak/Post-Tribune)
Sherri Ziller talks with the media after being appointed the new President/CEO of the Regional Development Authority during their meeting on Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021 in Merrillville, In. (John Smierciak/Post-Tribune)

Sherri Ziller didn’t need job orientation when she stepped into the top leadership position at the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority.

“I’m letting it all sink in,” Ziller said recently of her new role as the RDA’s president and chief executive officer, as a large celebratory flower arrangement from her husband decorated her desk.

“But at the same time, it’s business as usual.”

In her new job, Ziller, 40, expects to spend more of her time out of the office, “doing the relationship-building that’s part of the job.”

But much of her work now, as it was as the RDA’s chief operating officer, will focus on using Indiana’s largest-ever commuter rail projects — the South Shore Line’s West Lake Corridor in Lake County and its Double Track NWI project from Gary to Michigan City — as catalysts for economic development.

The RDA has been working with cities and towns along the South Shore’s new and existing routes to create a 320-acre development transit development district (TDD) around each station.

Each TDD can use the increase in property taxes and county income taxes within that district to finance public improvement projects there.

“We really have one chance to make sure that the areas around the stations are developed the way the communities want them to be,” Ziller said. “This is not something that’s happened in the past.”

And, she said: “We’re serving as the national model for this.”

Tax increment financing (TIF) districts have been around for years, each using the increase in property tax revenue in a defined area to help pay for public improvements there. The TDDs created by the Indiana General Assembly are unique, though, in adding the increase in county income taxes.

The RDA’s governing board appointed Ziller as the top executive on Oct. 14, but she had been the acting CEO since February, when Bill Hanna resigned from that job.

Ziller was a teacher for 11 years before starting to work at the RDA in 2006, as the agency was beginning.

“I enjoyed teaching, but I was just ready for a change,” she said. “I always saw myself as a public servant.”

At the RDA, Ziller began as executive assistant to then-CEO Tim Sanders, and later she became the grants manager. In 2009, after Hanna became CEO, she was appointed as chief operating officer, managing the RDA’s day-to-day business and consulting teams.

Hanna, now the chief executive of the Dean and Barbara White Family Foundation, said he tried to develop a team approach on the RDA staff, and Ziller “showed a lot of potential to grow” as the chief operating officer.

“She kept on taking on more responsibility,” he said. “It was really fortunate for me to have her in that position.”

Hanna “really enabled me to grow,” Ziller said. “I made sure I was in the community a lot, meeting people.”

“I think that, as public servants,” she added, “it’s our duty to leave Northwest Indiana better than when we found it.”

Appointing a new chief operating officer will be one of Ziller’s duties as the chief executive, but she’s not in a rush to do that now.

In its first years, the RDA focused on helping to fund improvements at Gary-Chicago International Airport, developments in cities along the region’s Lake Michigan shoreline, and incentives to bring new companies to the region.

Since 2015, the RDA’s focus has shifted organizing local funding to support the South Shore’s West Lake and Double Track projects, and helping to develop TDDs around South Shore stations.

The situation facing the RDA was illustrated by a map of the Chicago region, with a web of commuter rail lines extending from Chicago’s center into its Illinois suburbs, many of which had become well-to-do business centers of their own. And then one single rail line, the South Shore, extending into Northwest Indiana.

Developing better connections to Chicago became one of the RDA’s top goals.

“We have to get transit development so we can bring jobs back to Indiana,” Ziller said. “There’s more jobs in Chicago than in the entire state of Indiana.”

She expects that developments around the South Shore’s train stations will encourage more Illinois residents to move to Northwest Indiana.

“We need to continue to be bold, to make sure Northwest Indiana is taking its rightful place as a suburb of Chicago,” she said.

And when students graduate from Indiana colleges, “we need to get them to stay here,” she said. “We’re working on getting faster (commuter) service to Chicago. Eventually, they’ll start buying homes in Indiana.”

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