GARY | Members of a faith-based group say they are upset that four-fifths of the $166 million Gary/Chicago International Airport expansion has been completed, but less than 5 percent of the money has gone to pay the wages of Gary, Hammond and East Chicago residents.
Pastors who belong to the Northwest Indiana Federation of Interfaith Organizations/Jobs Coalition say they are indignant that a public agency that has been funding the airport project has not signed an agreement pledging to use tax dollars to hire people from the region's most economically depressed cities.
So they say they will make it easy for Northwest Indiana Redevelopment Authority Board members to sign an agreement to promise jobs and job training to people who live in Lake County's 14 most distressed ZIP codes.
On Nov. 24, the group plans to load at least three buses with church-goers who just got done with Sunday services for a field trip to the homes of the board members, who will be asked to sign.
"The people of faith and goodwill will offer the RDA the opportunity to get right with God," said Pastor Dwight Gardner, president of the social justice organization. "We'll even make it convenient for the RDA board members to sign."
A few hundred people gathered Monday at the Trinity Missionary Baptist Church in Gary to urge the agency to spend more public funds to provide jobs to people in Northwest Indiana's poorest communities. Several Gary pastors and public officials, including Gary City Council President Kyle Allen Sr. and representatives from Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson's office, signed a petition supporting the pledge to employ more people from neighborhoods that suffer from high rates of poverty and joblessness.
The Gary and East Chicago city councils have backed the regional community benefits agreement, which is modeled after arrangements that were made during the construction of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport and the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
Supporters include Rosa Marie Rodriguez, a steelworker who said she started her career with a shovel and a wheelbarrow at Inland Steel three decades ago, when employees just needed a strong back. She said she worked her way up to a technical position as a vacuum degasser through on-the-job training, but others don't get access to such training or have connections in the trades.
"This is our home, and these should be our jobs," she said. "They must sign the agreement. Enough is enough."
Gardner said the agreement was badly needed because unemployment in Gary has been hovering at around 30 percent, more than four times the state average of about 7 percent. More jobs are needed since 70 percent of children in Gary schools are at or below the poverty level, he said.
"There's nothing wrong with our community that jobs and working people can't fix," he said to a round of loud applause.