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GARY | Three of the five abandoned Gary school buildings sold in the last few years are as much of an eyesore as the 21 boarded-up and abandoned school buildings still owned by Gary Community School Corp.

The five buildings sold are the former Beckman Middle School, 1430 W. 23rd Ave.; Kuny Elementary, 5050 Vermont St.; Banneker Elementary School, 1912 W. 23rd Ave.; Pittman Square, 4948 Delaware; and Tolleston Middle School, 2700 W. 19th Ave.

Beckman Middle School was sold to Lew Management owned by Larry Webb. Beckman has had nearly every window in the building broken out, gang graffiti decorates the brick and overgrown shrubbery make it difficult to walk around. A look through windows shows graffiti where teachers used to write the day's lessons.

Webb said he operated a charter bus, school bus and limousine company. In 2011, he said he would move his operation to the former Beckman school by September that year. Webb said he intended to convert some of the classrooms into small apartments where his drivers could live.

That goal was not realized. Webb could not be reached for comment.

In 2011, Kuny was sold to Life Ministries International for $50,000. According to the Lake County assessor's office, the owner of the building is Life Church International Inc. at 671 E. 45th Ave. There is a for sale sign on the property.

The Kuny school property has a faded temporary nylon banner that says "Life Center" hanging over the old sign with the school's name. Several window openings and doors are boarded over with plywood. On a recent visit, mildew permeated the entryway though shut doors. Mops and mop buckets could be seen around the floor near the entryway.

Padlocks secure the doors of the old school and a small bus is parked behind the building. No one connected to the property could be reached for comment.

The school district sold the Banneker building to the National Civil Rights Museum and Hall of Fame, whose president and CEO is former Gary Mayor Richard Hatcher. It was sold for $50,000 in 2011. Though there are broken windows and some gang graffiti on the building, the grass is cut and the grounds are generally maintained.

The old Pittman Square school was given to Gary to be converted into a fire station.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said the demolition was completed by the school corporation some time ago. The City Council approved a HUD Section loan so a fire station could be built at the Pittman Square site and the Hudson Campbell Fitness Center would be renovated.

The former Tolleston Middle School was sold to The Boys & Girls Club of Northwest Indiana for $100. It is the only one of the five sold properties that has been renovated, restored and is in use.

A year after Banneker was purchased, Hatcher said vandals broke into the building, stripping it of wire, knocking out walls and causing other damage.

"We hired a security firm to watch the building 24/7," he said Monday. "Our security caught the people who, I guess, came back to finish the job."

Four were arrested and convicted in 2013 for the crime. 

Hatcher said architects and engineers said it would take more than $1 million to renovate the building to use as the National Civil Rights Museum and Hall of Fame. He said it didn't make sense to put that kind of money in such an old building, and the best use might be to tear it down and rebuild.

Hatcher, who has been working to get a National Civil Rights Museum and Hall of Fame in Gary for many years, said his group has raised about $500,000 -- the amount it would take to demolish Banneker. Hatcher said there are other entities that have been willing to donate money to the Hall of Fame, and he's hoping to generate support and cash for the building.

Freeman-Wilson said she hopes to forge a partnership with the museum's organizers to develop a plan for the situation.

Those buildings, along with the 21 boarded-up and rotting school buildings across the city, are among nearly 7,000 abandoned buildings in the city. Freeman-Wilson said abandoned buildings have been the "Achilles heel" of her administration.

"They are the most obvious evidence of the disorderly exit from the city that occurred from 1970 to 2010," she said.

"Most people left the city due to the decline of the steel industry and related challenges. There was no sale of homes or transfer of property. Many people walked away from real estate, inheritances and small businesses," she said.

She said abandoned schools must be viewed in the same context as homes, churches and businesses. 

"We look forward to working with Dr. (Cheryl) Pruitt, board President (Antuwan) Clemons and the entire Board of Trustees to work toward the financial stability of the schools and municipal government," she said. "We think that the (Distressed Unit Appeals Board) involvement presents a unique opportunity for cutting-edge collaboration that will be a model for other cities. There are opportunities with every challenge."

Reporter Marc Chase contributed to this report.


Education reporter

Carmen is an award-winning journalist who has worked at The Times newspaper for 20 years. Before that she also had stints at The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., The Post-Tribune and The News Dispatch in Michigan City.