GARY | The Genesis Convention Center was never the start of anything.
The civic center opened three decades ago around the time the much larger Allstate Arena did in Rosemont, but never packed in the same crowds. Taxpayer subsidies kept the lights on, and the facility broke even last year after expenses were slashed by 30 percent.
An economist and an urban affairs expert say there is no easy way to get more use and revenue out of the facility, which hosted 252 events last year. They warn another sports team would not be a huge draw and conventioneers are not going to flock to Gary. But, they say, the Genesis Center could bring people downtown if it were a regional home for local college basketball teams or if it offered a wider variety of events.
The facility across from City Hall was dreamed up in the 1970s, and never lived up to the promise of rebirth for downtown Gary.
Built for $25 million and opened in 1981, the Genesis Center notched a few successes in its early days: a Baptist National Convention that brought 30,000 people to town; a rodeo; a Civil Rights Museum telethon and a preseason game with Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls.
The facility at Fifth Avenue and Broadway attracted so few convention delegates that the Sheraton Hotel across the street closed four years after the Genesis Center opened. The skywalk between the buildings was never finished.
Hope glittered when the venue hosted the Miss USA pageants in 2001 and 2002. But the beauty queens left town, and never came back. No nationally significant event has been held at the Genesis Center since.
The Gary Steelheads minor league basketball team played at the arena for eight years, and then the Gary Splash basketball team came and went with a faint ripple. The Genesis Convention Center has drained millions of tax dollars from strained city coffers, most recently for roof and air conditioning upgrades.
Gary defrayed more than $1 million of the center's operating expenses in 2012, but the City Council has not approved a subsidy since then, Controller Celita Green said. Future contributions will depend on how much funding is requested, what is available and what is prioritized at the time, she said.
The 6,000-seat area is city-owned, but it has its own budget and a board responsible for its management, city spokeswoman Chelsea Whittington said.
Last year, the center brought in $557,000 in revenue and cost $550,000 to run, interim director Gwen Williams said.
"We're always looking for more bookings," she said.
Recent events have included gospel concerts, Indiana University Northwest commencements, and a performance by rapper Rick Ross. There are also meetings and banquets. A 200-person room at the Genesis Center can be rented for six hours for $100 any night of the week. Reserving the whole place runs for up to $3,500 on the weekend.
Efforts to get more use out of the center should focus on the local Northwest Indiana market, said Aaron Renn, an urban affairs expert who writes the popular and influential Urbanophile blog.
"Gary is a lot different from convention cities like Chicago or Indianapolis," he said. "They have great restaurants, safety, great hotels, plenty of swank places where you can entertain customers. Gary has a reputation, and the reality makes it a tough sell."
Also, cities all over the country have been engaged in a race to build more modern convention centers, Renn said.
Most academics would agree a minor league team would not be a big shot in the arm economically, because it would just displace existing spending on entertainment, Renn said.
In this case, however, a team could benefit Gary because it could bring in fans from southern Lake or Porter County, Renn said.
Another team likely would not result in any redevelopment downtown, said Don Coffin, a retired Indiana University Northwest assistant professor of economics who has done academic research into sports and sports facilities. The U.S. Steel Yard has been around for a decade and failed to attract new businesses despite solid attendance. Bennigan's and Steel City Buffet both opened nearby, then closed.
The problem is sports fans typically don't eat out before the game, or stick around afterward, Coffin said. Teams don't necessarily want them to either, hoping to capture all the spending on food and drinks during the game.
"People go to the game, and then they go home," he said. "Look at old Comiskey, now U.S. Cellular Field. There's little around there, because people go to the game and then they go home. How much is around Soldier Field? Not much."
Theaters and shopping malls do much better jobs of sparking ancillary economic development, Coffin said.
Minor league basketball never was a huge draw to the Genesis Center because it does not have the same traditional appeal as minor league baseball and minor league hockey, Coffin said. College basketball typically attracts larger crowds.
College basketball also is cheaper because it is effectively subsidized by the universities, Coffin said. Plus, college students make for a built-in fan base.
"If you could watch a high-quality entertaining college game, and it's cheaper, you would choose that over a mediocre professional game," he said.
A possibility for the Genesis Center would be to have it serve as a regional home court for the Indiana University Northwest Redhawks, the Purdue Calumet Peregrines and the Calumet College of St. Joseph Crimson Wave. In Philadelphia, The University of Pennsylvania, La Salle University, St. Joseph's University, Temple University and Villanova University all share the same arena.
An issue is all the local colleges have basketball facilities, Coffin said.
A good, entertaining product would be needed to draw more people to the Genesis Center, Coffin said. Also, more than one product would be essential because a minor league team only plays around 30 home games a year and that leaves another 335 days to fill. They could look at other sports, such as minor league hockey or arena football. High school teams could play there.
The age and condition of the Genesis Center might deter some people from visiting, but the quality of the product matters far more, Coffin said. In Indianapolis, people flock to Butler Bulldog basketball games despite the fact that Hinkle Fieldhouse is cramped and uncomfortable. That is because the team has enjoyed success in recent years.
Renn said he would be highly skeptical of the investment of any public funds, especially at a time when they are so preciously needed elsewhere.
"If I were the mayor of Gary, it would be at the bottom of my list," he said. "The truth is, there are much bigger issues. The budget must be structurally balanced and sound. There's public safety, abandoned buildings... all of these problems. Lake County basically has the same population that it did in 1960, but people moved out of the northern tier of cities into these greenfield towns like St. John and Crown Point. Gary has to carve a niche in the region to have a viable economy when it doesn't have a lot of leverage anymore. Problems don't persist in Gary because the leaders are stupid and ignoring the obvious solutions. It's because they're hard problems. When you have so many abandoned homes, it's hard to fight back."