After decade, Gary stadium's shine fails to light up neighborhood

2013-08-10T17:30:00Z 2014-04-16T17:56:11Z After decade, Gary stadium's shine fails to light up neighborhoodBy Keith Benman keith.benman@nwi.com, (219) 933-3326 nwitimes.com

GARY | It's not the Magnificient Mile.

And the neighborhood around the U.S. Steel Yard falls well shy of former Mayor Scott King's vision of more than a decade ago, when he portrayed a yet-to-be built baseball stadium as the linchpin for an arts and entertainment district.

Yet there are some small rays of hope that have emerged within sight of the 6,100-seat U.S. Steel Yard stadium since it opened for business as a professional baseball venue 10 years ago. City leaders are hoping there are more to come.

"In 10 years you will have a very nice corridor there, anchored by the Steel Yard on one side and the Genesis Center on the other side," said Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson when asked for her vision of Fifth Avenue and Broadway. "You will have a choice of eating establishments like Fresh Coast Coffee that is there now, the Steel City Grill and you will have some retail."

Freeman-Wilson counts as successes in the area the $18 million renovation of the 57-unit Dalton Apartments just down the street from the Steel Yard and the nearby Carolina Gardens Senior Housing built by a nonprofit with a $5.5 million federal advance. The Indiana Department of Transportation's $14.4 million reconstruction of Fourth and Fifth avenues is another.

The city-owned Genesis Center is attracting more events, but still is not where it needs to be to be sustainable, Freeman-Wilson said.

Work to be done

Walking down Fifth Avenue, where the U.S. Steel Yard is located, it's not hard to see how much remains to be done. The Steel City Buffet owned by the Gary Empowerment Zone across from the stadium is again in search of an operator. The barbecue joint in the same building is empty. A Bennigan's restaurant was kicked out of the Steel Yard itself after shootings outside, rowdy nights inside and failure to pay rent.

Demolition of downtown's most prominent eyesore, the Sheraton Hotel just north of Fifth Avenue, where the last guest checked out almost 30 years ago, has again been delayed.

And it's hard not to notice the largest projects counted by the mayor as successes have all been heavily, and in some cases completely, subsidized by government. Stand-alone private investment is almost nil.

Freeman-Wilson's take on the Steel Yard today contrasts with her stance on the project more than a decade ago. Then, challenging incumbent Mayor Scott King in 2002 for the Democratic nod to run for mayor, she questioned why it was costing the city $50 million when other cities built perfectly good ballparks for half that. She insinuated Gary's stadium was being built to return political favors and settle political debts.

Like others who mellow with time and position, she counts herself today as one of the ballpark's biggest supporters. She says the stadium's success as a region-wide attraction is one reason her just-announced partnership with three federal agencies chose to focus on neighborhoods on Gary's north side.

"It serves as an anchor for that area," she said. "In the Steel Yard, we have another venue that is successful in drawing people from within and without the city."

In fact, Freeman-Wilson's vision for reviving downtown today is not that much different from Mayor Scott King's more than a decade ago. But Freeman-Wilson said she won't be putting city dollars into such grand schemes as the Steel Yard anytime in the near future, preferring a more incremental approach.

"I have been careful to say we are not going to build stairways to the moon," she said. "Success will come in small steps."

She also counts herself as a supporter of RailCats owner Pat Salvi, the Chicago trial lawyer who bought the team along with his wife, Linda, just before the 2008 season.

Hope for success

For his part, Salvi concurs with the mayor's vision of improving the neighborhood by small steps.

"I think our current mayor understands it has to be done piece by piece and can't be done in too grandiose a fashion," he said on a recent night at the ball park just before his team faced off against the Sioux City Explorers.

On that night Salvi, he had just driven to the stadium after conducting a news conference with the family of a Crown Point man killed by a drunk driver last November.

As he walked from the Steel Yard VIP gate, up stairs and through hallways he was greeted with hellos, handshakes and back slaps by members of RailCats management and other employees.

His crisply tailored, dark suit contrasted with the team polos and team jerseys worn by just about everyone else.

Once settled on the couch of his law firm's luxury suite, he said he is gratified the Freeman-Wilson administration appears to be dropping "pie-in-the-sky" ideas favored by a previous administration, such as a Michael Jackson theme park.

He waives off suggestions he once planned to be more directly involved in development around the ballpark, perhaps with his own money, despite news reports to the contrary. He states his mission now is to make the U.S. Steel Yard experience the best it can be for fans.

"It's very important to be successful, consistently successful," Salvi said. "To grind out a great product year in and year out. So it represents a real foundation for the neighborhood and encourages prospective developers that it can be done here. It's sort of an anchor. It's sort of a crown jewel."

Salvi has talked to prospective restauranteurs about operating the former Bennigan's restaurant located in the stadium complex's southwest corner. He admits it became somewhat of an embarrassment near the end of its run, when a night club appeared to operate there and a couple of late night shootings occurred outside.

He finally kicked that tenant out. But new ones he has interviewed seem to lack the experience or money to make a go of it. He didn't want to comment on how to make businesses along Fifth Avenue more accessible to the traffic whizzing by on Fifth. He does like the Indiana Department of Transportation's rebuilding of the busy truck route and its sidewalks.

The next step is maybe a restaurant franchise on the street such as Popeyes or Wendy's. He applauds business owners like John and Linda Key with their Fresh Coast Coffee at the corner of Broadway and Fifth. He hopes his efforts at the Steel Yard can someday contribute to their success.

"People come in from Valparaiso, from Merrillville, and Crown Point, and Chesterton and so forth and they come into Gary and they spend money here and they enjoy it here," Salvi said. "They come on Friday and Saturday night and Sunday afternoon and spend time here. So there's hope other businesses can be successful."

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