GARY | Gary has an international airport, beautiful lakefront and an image problem.
Chuck Hughes, executive director of the Gary Chamber of Commerce, hopes projects under way to improve the first two help with the third.
“Two of our greatest resources are already being developed, and I would expect that sometime over the next year those things would come to fruition,” Hughes said.
Although urban blight and vacant homes remain a problem in the Steel City, there were several signs of economic life last year, Hughes said.
Redeveloping the Kirk Yard rail facility was approved last spring, although Canadian National later scaled back the project and the number of jobs it will bring. Also, energy management company Promet Energy moved to Gary last year.
“When you have the ability to attract that kind of company, that bodes well,” Hughes said of Promet.
Hughes is hoping increased capacity at the airport and the redevelopment of Gary's lakefront will make businesses see what he sees in Gary: people who need jobs and a welcoming City Hall.
“Some business are reluctant because of what kind of reception they'll get from the administration,” Hughes said. “They are very, very receptive.”
But expanding Gary/Chicago International Airport has been problematic. Originally estimated to cost $90 million, the airport expansion budget rocketed to $166 million, causing the airport authority to submit a last-minute call for FAA funds in August.
The project originally was to be completed by 2010, but languished for years. They're clearing land for the main runway extension now.
Relocating railroads around the extension now makes up $92.5 million of the project's cost, documents uncovered by The Times last year showed. The lawyers' fees for negotiating with the railroads made legal costs go from $50,000 to more than $700,000.
In the deal cut with the railroads to move the trains, the airport authority pledged millions in improvements to train stations, some as far as four miles away from the Gary airport.
Now, a proposed state Senate bill could take control of the airport from Gary, shifting it to Indianapolis.
The bill, which also includes economic development measures Gary wants, would increase the size of the board. All the new members would be chosen by the governor.
Currently, Gary picks four members of a seven-member board. If the Senate approves the changes, the governor would pick five members of an 11-member board, including the chairman.
Although Hughes feels the airport expansion will be a huge boost to the area, the chamber continues to work on luring smaller businesses to town and reopening some of the closed ones.
“This part of Indiana is as fertile as any place in Indiana,” Hughes said.
The chamber also sponsored this month's visit from Gov. Mike Pence to talk about jobs and the business climate. It's part of a plan, Hughes said, to help businesses realize Gary is an option.
“I think what we're doing is continuing to work toward trying to get the word out there,” Hughes said.