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CROWN POINT — While some people may see Gary as a series of vacant lots and abandoned buildings, Joe van Dyk sees those same parcels and structures as opportunities for growth.

The director of the Gary Redevelopment Commission, van Dyk gave the concluding talk Thursday at a training academy on vacant, abandoned and problem properties at White Hawk Country Club.

Sponsored by the Greater Northwest Indiana Association of Realtors, the all-day academy drew 100 real estate professionals, politicians and municipal building and code enforcement officials.

Working for the city of Gary for six years, van Dyk opened with a bleak picture of the Steel City, including a 56-percent drop in population over the past 50 years. The city official added that 1 in 5 Gary buildings is vacant; 2 in 5 buildings are blighted; and 42 percent of the city’s land is vacant.

Since 2012, the city of Gary has demolished between 700 and 800 buildings. That leaves another 5,000, van Dyk said. The biggest challenge to demolitions? “Funds,” he said. “It costs about $10,000 to demolish one structure.”

The city has qualified for $11 million for demolition, which van Dyk continued, is not solely about removing eyesores but stabilizing neighborhoods and redeveloping sections of the city.

Rather than waving a white flag, van Dyk said the city is using data-based information to work with citizens and redevelop property. Ongoing projects, he said, include University Park Plaza, which are improvements near Indiana University Northwest.

In addition, van Dyk said, Gary is rich in natural diversity, from savannahs to wetlands.

Thanks to legislation Gary supported and has since become state law, the city can pursue unscrupulous land investors. Under Enrolled Act 310, passed during the 2015-16 legislative session, if investors purchase 10 or more properties on a county tax sale and the properties end up in another tax sale, the city or county can petition the courts to force investors to pay their taxes or give up the properties.

According to van Dyk, Gary has successfully used the state law in several cases. The city is also using geospatial econometrics to determine the effects of one piece of property on another. This, along with examining change over time in Gary, will enable city officials to develop better decision support, not decision making.

“We can have informed, honest dialogue with residents,” van Dyk said. “This will allow us to see new opportunities.”

Gary is in the “infant stages” of public dialogue, van Dyk said, “but we have the data to support” future plans.

Recent actions include the development of a public garden in the Emerson-Spaulding area of downtown Gary. Also, working with a private group, the city planted tulip poplars near the former Junedale ball fields. Poplars can soak up plenty of water, van Dyk said, and the wood from the trees will be processed.

The training academy included presentations on property market dynamics, land banking and strategic code enforcement. James J. Kelly, a clinical law professor at the University of Notre Dame, addressed the Unsafe Building Law and its potential for helping communities.

“Indiana has been very attentive to [unsafe buildings] for some time,” Kelly said. “We want to go from reactive to being more proactive.”

Joe Wszolek, chief operating officer of the GNIAR, said the goal of the academy was to “give everyone the opportunity to be exposed to this information. We want to show people new ideas, new thoughts, so they can start thinking differently and we can improve this region.”