Gary, Ind., Mayor-elect Karen Freeman-Wilson thinks her city is ready to tell a different story – and she’s not alone: Some 500 people from Gary, Northwest Indiana and greater metropolitan Chicago filled the Genesis Center on Tuesday, Dec. 13, for “Gary: City of Promise,” a conversation with the new mayor about her plans and hopes for Gary.
Freeman-Wilson challenged each person in the room to stop dwelling on Gary’s beleaguered history and start talking about and – more importantly – working toward its bright future. “Each of us plays a vital role,” she told the audience. “You hired me, but we have to get to work.”
Outgoing Gary Mayor Rudy Clay nodded in agreement as he passed the leadership baton to Freeman-Wilson, challenging her to go “faster and further” with it. Hinting at more success stories on the horizon, Mayor Clay told the crowd that just that weekend, he had the good misfortune of having to make a decision about whether to attend a news conference announcing Allegiant Air’s decision to fly out of the Gary-Chicago International Airport – the airport’s first regularly scheduled service in three years – or the groundbreaking of a $6 million senior housing deal in downtown Gary.
Likewise, Freeman-Wilson acknowledged Gary is ripe for improvement – so ripe, in fact, that one of her administration’s main challenges will be maintaining a laser-like focus. “A shotgun approach [to economic development] does not work,” she said. To be socially and fiscally responsible, Freeman-Wilson has established near-term and long-term priorities, including economic development linked to job training; safety (“It’s time for us to act like the majority rules in Gary,” she told a cheering audience); and image, encompassing a citywide sprucing up and stronger code enforcement.
Collaboration with local, regional, state and national partners is necessary to advance Gary’s strategic redevelopment plan, Freeman-Wilson said. That’s one reason why Gary elected leaders recently got together to agree to speak in one voice regarding key issues impacting Gary. By telling the same story, said Freeman-Wilson, they will have a greater impact. She also acknowledged Portage Mayor Olga Velazquez’s attendance at the event, saying, “We are of different communities and different parties, but we have the same vision for Northwest Indiana.” And to stakeholders across the region, Freeman-Wilson has a clear message: “Gary has a list of priorities, we understand our assets and the financial incentives available, and we are ready to embrace all partners -- local, regional and national, public and private -- who see the same potential in Gary that we do,” she said.
That includes the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority (RDA), which since 2008 has been making focused investments to lay the groundwork for business attraction to Northwest Indiana, including Gary. The RDA is becoming a national model for regional economic revitalization, by addressing challenges that cross municipal borders – such as transportation – at the regional scale and in coordination with local, regional state and federal jurisdictions. The RDA has invested nearly $511 million – mostly funding from outside the region – to clean up and provide greater access to the Lake Michigan shoreline, improve the region’s public transportation, and expand the runway at the Gary-Chicago International Airport. As evidenced by Allegiant Air’s recent announcement, these investments are paying off.
MPC Vice President Peter Skosey, who also spoke at the “City of Promise” event, said he looks forward to playing a role in Gary’s new, unfolding story through the Gary and Region Investment Project, a joint effort of The Times of Northwest Indiana and MPC. Gary’s future story will build on its past, including the region’s enviable assets: miles of Lake Michigan shoreline; unparalleled transportation access to three major interstates, three Class I railroad lines, the Northern Indiana Commuter Transportation District, and Gary-Chicago International Airport; universities providing workforce training and research; and a strong global position as a vital part of the Chicago region. Combine all that with new leadership and fresh thinking in Gary, a focused redevelopment plan, strong regional coordination, and targeted investments, and Skosey said Northwest Indiana is poised “like never before” to realize its rightful success story.