GARY | The baton is nearly passed, and the ball is ready to be carried over the goal line.
That's how Gary Mayor Rudy Clay on Tuesday described the end of his mayoral run, as Mayor-elect Karen Freeman-Wilson talked about the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead.
"Every mayor should pass on to the next mayor a baton that's better than the one he got or she got," Clay said. "The baton that we're passing on to you is now polished, shined up and ready to go."
He encouraged his successor to take that baton faster, farther and higher than any mayor in the city's history. Freeman-Wilson thanked Clay for delivering a "shiny" baton.
The new mayor won't take office until January, but she shared her goals as part of Gary: City of Promise, an event sponsored in part by The Times Media Co.
The Times Media Co. and the Chicago-based Metropolitan Planning Council are leading the Gary and Region Investment Project, or GRIP, which spawned from the One Region, One Vision initiative.
The project aims to bring together community leaders, residents, national experts and state and federal representatives to develop an investment strategy to revitalize Northwest Indiana's urban core.
With a lineup of speakers that included religious leaders, the Genesis Convention Center conference room felt more like Sunday morning church at times.
Shouts of "Amen!" and "Praise Jesus!" lifted from the group of about 500 people.
Gary, built by the likes of J.P. Morgan, Elbert H. Gary and the Carnegie family, is poised to become the next great comeback story of the Rust Belt because Gary is a city of promise, Freeman-Wilson said.
"Northwest Indiana has the potential to be great, with Gary as the crown jewel," she said.
She encouraged people to reject the uninformed stereotypes about Gary, such as rampant political corruption and the "murder capital" nickname.
"I challenge you to change your conversation about Gary," she said.
When she grew up in Gary, Freeman-Wilson remembers being proud to live in the Steel City. For 35 years, her dad toiled in the USX tin mill.
Residents need to be active in bringing Gary back to the city they remember.
A pessimist sees Gary's warts: The tax base is declining, infrastructure is deteriorating and crime is high, but talking about the problems instead of moving forward is stifling, Freeman-Wilson said.
"Talking is part of the problem. Positive action is part of the solution," she said. "You must decide to be part of the problem or part of the solution."
She said she welcomes criticism, but there is no room for negativity or excuses not to help.
"You hired me," Freeman-Wilson said. "We have to get to work. There's enough to go around."
She listed economic development, public safety and the city's appearance as the top three issues facing Gary, the same issues residents have identified as their top concerns.
"First, we must have a plan," she said. "The shotgun approach won't work."
She referred people to her website, www.karenaboutgary.com, to view a detailed blueprint.
She said lots littered with garbage, weeds and overgrown brush are problems, but Gary's main aesthetic issue lies with abandoned buildings.
"The abandoned buildings have to go," she said.
In many cases, the city knows who is responsible, and they should be held accountable through code enforcement, she added.
Rail lines and interstates criss-cross the city, which sits within reach of Chicago, the country's third largest city.
"Our opportunities for economic development are ripe," she said.
Gary needs more residents and needs to create jobs and job training programs, she stressed.
Residents need to cooperate with police; law-abiding residents outnumber the handful of citizens committing crimes, and they need to take charge, she said.
"It is time to act like the majority," she said.
Within blocks of the Genesis Convention Center, buildings are crumbling. Homes are boarded up, abandoned. Storefront windows are busted out.
Gary resident Lola Jackson said she has seen whole city blocks lined with abandoned or crumbling homes. She's confident the mayor-elect will turn things around, with the help of the community.
"If we can get people to come together and be of one accord, we can do a lot for our city," Jackson said. "Together we stand."
A 40-year Gary resident, Jackson said it's going to take time and cooperation with Freeman-Wilson to revitalize the city.
"If we work with her, we can accomplish a lot of things," Jackson said.
Jean Ishmon, executive director of the Northwest Indiana Reinvestment Alliance and a managing partner with Ishmon & Associates Consultants, said people are excited about change coming to Gary and the possibility for more jobs and economic development.
Small business owners are looking forward to entrepreneurial training opportunities in the city, Ishmon said.
The city has a lot of resources to offer, she said.
Ishmon, who was born and raised in Hammond, and Diana Sandlin, a lifelong Gary resident and the co-owner of Rural & Urban Consulting, eagerly took notes at Tuesday's event.
"We're all excited, because it's time for a change," Sandlin said. "It's time for the next generation to come in with our ideas."
She said Freeman-Wilson is her cousin and is dedicated to Gary.
"She did not have to come back, but she did," Sandlin said.