GARY | The last 12 months have brought the start of renewal to the city of Gary, but it needs more resources and must address violence and unemployment in the road ahead, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson reported Tuesday in her State of the City address.
"We are destined to return to our rightful place as the beacon of northwest Indiana," she told supporters in the banquet room at the Genesis Center.
More than 200 jobs were created in the last year, but the city missed the mark in job creation, she said.
The city's official unemployment rate is 15.9 percent. But Freeman Wilson said residents know the true rate is more like 30 to 40 percent, when figuring in for people who stopped looking for work or who never sought jobs in the first place.
"We must create jobs here in the city of Gary," she said.
She challenged the crowd to write to President Barack Obama and ask him to designate Gary as a Promise Zone, an initiative that take will 20 distressed communities from around the country and allow tax breaks for those who make capital investments there and for employers who hire unemployed residents.
Talks continue about the creation of a port, land-based gaming, a trauma center and a teaching hospital in Gary.
Freeman-Wilson also touted the University Park program.
"With the investment from the state, the demolition and renewal of housing spurred by the city and the potential for retail development along Broadway and Ridge Road, this will be a transformational project in the city of Gary," she said. "This will also be the community where we will unveil our Dollar House program for Gary residents in the next 30 days."
The Dollar House program applies to people who want to live in the city of Gary, not for investors, she said.
The city is embracing social media with a new website and allowing people to call 311 or download a 311 phone application to share information with city officials, the mayor said.
Among the first-year achievements she noted were cost-savings measures and the creation of public/private partnerships.
The city reduced most department budgets by 20 percent. It averted a loss of more than $3 million in HUD funds. It used a $350,000 grant to dredge Marquette Lagoon and create jobs. It is partnering with the private sector to create business counseling services and make capital available in the city.
"Over the past 10 months, we have been a part of a regional brownfields project that will result in the demolition of the Sheraton Hotel by the middle of the year," she said. "We are currently engaged in a north side redevelopment project that will lead to improvements downtown, and the Emerson and Miller communities."
The city worked with universities, at no cost, to address some of its problems. Among them was a partnership with the University of Chicago to analyze the issue of abandoned buildings, dump sites, budgeting and the need for economic development.
Gary still faces major issues, such as a high rate of gun violence and another $60 million needed to invest in the Gary Sanitary District to bring it into compliance, she said.
In his introduction of the mayor Tuesday, Times Publisher Bill Masterson Jr. credited her for caring enough to return to Gary, even though she easily could have taken a more prosperous job elsewhere.
"You elected someone who is more interested in what she can do to help the community she loves," Masterson said.
When Freeman-Wilson's administration took over, it faced financial and regulatory problems in city departments and agencies. The problems were not because of mismanagement by her predecessor Rudy Clay, but effects of tax caps, she said.
"We understood the job description before we arrived," she said.
Among the problems were seven expired union contracts, firefighters living in near squalid conditions and visits from federal agents warning of non-compliance issues in some departments.
"It was raining on essential computer equipment in some buildings because dedicated staff had grown accustomed to, as my grandmother would say, 'makin' do,'" Freeman-Wilson said.
She said the city worked with state and federal agencies to make improvements, while pulling out its own blueprint for change.
In her closing remarks, Freeman-Wilson referenced a recent ranking by Forbes magazine that placed Gary as the 19th most miserable city in America.
"I know we are not a miserable people," she said. "We are a resilient people, we are a valiant people."