Obama administration taps Gary for Strong Cities initiative

2014-01-16T11:30:00Z 2014-07-18T11:16:16Z Obama administration taps Gary for Strong Cities initiativeJoseph S. Pete joseph.pete@nwi.com, (219) 933-3316 nwitimes.com
January 16, 2014 11:30 am  • 

GARY | Gary soon will get an unprecedented level of support from the federal government, which will work out of City Hall to strengthen the city's economy and lift up its residents.

The Obama administration announced Thursday that Gary will be one of seven economically distressed cities that will take part in the Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative. The federal government will dispatch a team of experts, including representatives from several different federal agencies, to the Steel City for up to two years to work with local leaders on revitalization projects, such as the Northside Redevelopment Project and the bid for a trauma center. Those experts will help the city deal with abandoned houses and crime, and brainstorm on how to bring in more retail businesses.

Strong Cities, Strong Communities teams have helped line up nearly $370 million in existing federal funds and investments for the program's original pilot cities, which include Cleveland, Detroit and Memphis.

"For our city to be designated by the White House to receive this assistance is big news," Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said. "This not only represents a partnership with the federal government, but the strengthened engagement of our local educational institutions, local medical providers, local foundations, local nonprofits and corporate partners. It is our collective goal to be the hardest-working SC2 team in the history of the program."

Gary partnered with a number of community institutions — including the Regional Development Authority, the Miller Beach Arts District and Indiana University Northwest — in making its bid for the special federal designation. In November, a team of high-ranking White House officials came into town for a daylong interview with city officials. They assessed planning the city has done, and revitalization projects that are already underway.

When Freeman-Wilson recently got a call back about the Strong Cities program, she was not sure if the news would be good or bad. But she was thrilled to learn that Gary was one of seven out of 91 eligible cities to get the federal assistance.

"It certainly means enhanced support from our existing federal partners," she said.

Freeman-Wilson hopes to work with the federal team on the Sheraton demolition and the Northside Redevelopment Project, which aims to raze vacant properties and rebuild the Aetna, Miller, downtown/Emerson and Ambridge-Horace Mann neighborhoods. She said the federal government can offer guidance on best practices that have worked in other communities and also data crunching, such as of which houses should be slated for demolition.

She hopes Gary can get technical assistance for a variety of projects, including luring new development to the University Park neighborhood around Indiana University Northwest, redeveloping that section of Broadway and further enhancing Marquette Park in the Miller neighborhood.

The Strong Cities program aims to build "ladders of opportunity" for people in economically distressed opportunities, in keeping with the president's belief the ZIP code someone was born in should not limit his or her opportunity in life, Domestic Policy Council director Cecilia Munoz said.

In addition to Gary, the program is being expanded to Brownsville, Texas; Flint, Mich.; Macon, Ga.; Rockford, Ill., St. Louis, Mo.; and Rocky Mount N.C.

Federal teams that include government officials, professionals who get fellowships, and AmeriCorps volunteers will be embedded in those economically depressed communities. They will offer advice, figure out how to best coordinate federal investments and guide city leaders on how to deploy existing resources most effectively. The federal officials also will collaborate with community groups, local businesses and philanthropies.

"During these tough fiscal times, it is vitally important that the administration provides support to those cities in need," said Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. "The support provided by the Strong Cities, Strong Communities Initiative is helping local leaders maximize every dollar to spur economic growth, create jobs, and build stronger and safer communities."

The idea is to partner with local leaders to create tailor-made approaches to addressing specific community problems, rather than to swoop into town and impose one-size-fits-all Washington solutions, Donovan said.

In Detroit, a Strong Cities team helped secure private-sector investment in light rail to bring commuters downtown. In Memphis, federal officials assisted local police in the creation of a center for real-time crime data and metrics. Federal officials came up with suggestions for how to raze abandoned homes in Fresno, Calif., establish a job training program in Cleveland, and land private-sector financing for a supermarket in Chester, Pa.

Donovan said the aim of such projects is to ensure that people are not sentenced to a lifetime of struggle just because they live in chronically distressed areas. Instead, the government tries to provide them with opportunities to better their lives and enter the middle class.

"At a national level, we were losing 800,000 jobs per month in the recession, and it devastated these communities and added to their struggles," Donovan said. "It devastated their tax revenue and their tax bases, but it didn't mean they lost hope. The initiative is meant to serve as the seeds of rebirth, and to help these communities write their comeback stories."

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