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Gary has an estimated 5,000 vacant homes, but officials have stopped looking at them as nothing but a liability and more as an asset.

The city and the Delta Institute's Steel City Salvage project just won a $385,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to deconstruct homes and recycle the building materials like lumber and architectural features. It was the largest individual grant out of the $5 million awarded in the Knight Cities Challenge, which had attracted more than 4,500 proposals from across the country.

"This is not simply about the demolition of vacant and abandoned buildings," Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said.

"But it promotes the deconstruction of vacant and abandoned buildings, as well as the repurposing and recycling of the material. One of the things we know about the city of Gary is there are beautiful homes here that have fallen into disrepair, that cannot be repurposed but the materials in those homes can certainly be reused for something else."

Delta Institute Director Eve Pytel said contractors also could recycle materials through Steel City Salvage, and it was expected to be a $12 million market. The Chicago-based nonprofit is going to investigate the best way to sell salvaged housing, whether it's through consignment or pop-up shops.

The Delta Institute's big idea was to reconceive of the homes as assets that would create economic opportunities, CEO William Schleizer said.

"I kind of view it as a new urban forest, one that has matured and been cared for over these long decades, and is now ready to be harvested for these building materials," he said. "Deconstruction is the way to make that happen. It diverts these elements from the landfill."

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Business reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.