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Built as a company town on windswept duneland more than a century ago, Gary persists as a hub of heavy industry that — for all of its rust and age — continues to attract new investment.

U.S. Steel is now bumping $750 million into its flagship Gary Works steel mill. Alliance Steel, ReEnergize USA and Fulcrum BioEnergy also are making major investments in new operations in the city.

Crisscrossed by three interstate highways and on the sandy shores of a Great Lake, Gary also remains a logistics hub where Amazon recently hired 500 workers at a new warehouse, and where many of the nation’s major trucking companies operate terminals.

But many factory and warehouse workers commute to Gary from out of town. The city’s unemployment rate stood at 9.9% in March, the second-highest jobless rate in Indiana after only East Chicago, according to the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. Gary often has the highest jobless rate in the Hoosier state.

A contributing factor to Gary’s stubbornly high unemployment is the lack of retail, since the retail sector accounts for 14.6% of the jobs in greater Northwest Indiana, making the industry one of the largest employers in the Region, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

After decades of decline and depopulation, the Steel City has struggled to retain and attract the retail businesses that provide residents basic necessities like fresh produce, prescription drugs, clothes and furniture. The city’s residents often have to travel halfway across the city or to neighboring suburbs to grab cough medicine or a gallon of milk, or pay a premium for staples at a corner convenience mart.

A smattering of new retailers opened in Gary last year, including All Pet Supplies on Broadway; R&R Sports Bar & Grill in the long-vacant Bennigan’s space at the U.S. Steel Yard; Tequila and Tacos in Miller; Janis R. Powell State Farm Insurance in Midtown; and a new Family Dollar on West 25th Avenue. The city is now home to at least a dozen dollar stores but no major supermarket chains, and one of its last remaining big-box stores, Menards, has been rumbling about a move to neighboring Griffith.

Mayor: 'We see a lot of success with homegrown businesses'

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said she’s made it a priority to try to bring new small businesses to the city with programs like the Gary Micro-Enterprise Initiative and the Gary Micro-Loan Program. Her administration also has been working on other related projects, such as by creating an online portal so entrepreneurs can apply for all of the needed permits online. Her rivals in the mayoral race characterize retail in Gary as “very poor” and “almost nonexistent” and are proposing fixes like demolishing targeted properties to make way for redevelopment or renting vacant buildings out to entrepreneurs at a discounted rate to keep their overhead low and increase their odds for success.

Freeman-Wilson said her administration has prioritized small business creation, such as by partnering with First Financial Bank to offer $100,000 in microloans to entrepreneurs, and by offering those interested in starting a business in the city eight weeks of startup training through the Gary Micro-Enterprise Initiative at ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen downtown.

“It’s a tremendous shot in the arm that allows people who have good ideas to develop them,” she said. “Two years ago, during my State of the City Address, I talked about how important small businesses are to the community. We have U.S. Steel, Amazon and Alliance Steel, and all of those are great. But 60% of the residents in a community are employed by small businesses. Our efforts to support small businesses are directly tied to economic development, and retail is important to addressing a food desert or a pharmacy desert.”

Gary has been attracting new retail businesses, especially along Grant Street and Lake Street in the lakefront Miller neighborhood, Freeman-Wilson said. The Beyond 4 Walls Christian Center, for instance, has taken over a strip mall by the vacant Walgreens in Miller, where it’s bringing in Chicagoland Popcorn, Harold’s Chicken and other new tenants. Newer businesses like the Vibrations Health, Wellness and Juice Bar on Lake Street in Gary even have proven successful enough to expand, she said.

“We see a lot of success with homegrown businesses,” Freeman-Wilson said. “They are familiar with the area and employ local people.”

Gary has sought to court national chains, such as when it tried to lure new pharmacy chains to replace the Walgreens and Fagen pharmacies that closed in 2017. Freeman-Wilson repeatedly has voiced a desire to bring a Starbucks by the Indiana University Northwest campus, in the area the city has attempted to rebrand as University Park.

But the city focuses more on fostering locally owned businesses, which tend to know the market better, Freeman-Wilson said. The Fresh County Market grocery store on Grant Street, for instance, did not blossom until it was under local ownership.

“Its original owner folded, and it pulled back on the deli, the full-scale bakery, the full-scale winery and other things they were trying to offer that just weren’t selling,” she said.

Gary has worked with business owners, developers and organizations like the Lake County Economic Alliance to try to bring in more businesses, showing them vacant and city-owned properties and offering incentives like facade improvement grants, Freeman-Wilson said. The city has encouraged existing business owners to install cameras as a deterrence to crime and to work with police to address the nagging security issues.

Freeman-Wilson said her administration also is trying to put online the process of getting permits to start a business, the way most other cities have at this point.

“We’re trying to put it online. To the extent that it’s possible, we want to establish a one-stop shop,” she said. “It should make it more efficient to get permits and speed the process up.”

Freeman-Wilson said there were more opportunities to develop more retail in Gary, such as along Melton Road and by an upgraded South Shore Line station in Miller after the double-tracking project is complete.

“This is a city with (nearly) 80,000 people,” Freeman-Wilson said. “That’s a lot of people. It can support a vibrant retail community.”

Prince: 'We need to ease the process of doing business in the city'

But today, retail in Gary is nearly nonexistent, Lake County Assessor and Gary mayoral candidate Jerome Prince said.

“People have to look for basic things outside the community,” he said. “There aren’t adequate food choices for those who want to shop the basic staples. I would very aggressively look for opportunities to provide incentives to retail and other small businesses. It could be the number of properties the city owns offered at a reasonable rate. It could be concentrated demolition so there’s land to locate a business.”

Prince said the city needs to streamline the process for starting a new business and get it online.

“There’s a lack of information about how to start a business,” he said. “As assessor, when I took over I replaced the antiquated software system to make it more user-friendly. We need to ease the process of doing business in the city.”

Prince said he favored ongoing training opportunities for local businesses, such as on how to provide services to a community with limited customers and how to offer high-quality customer service. Gary must nurture local merchants to have any hope to attract larger retail chains, he said.

“It’s imperative the city does everything it can to train businesses,” he said. “At a very minimum, it’s inconvenient for residents to not have those resources here in the community. People also have to pay elevated or increased prices for basic amenities at service stations.”

Gary needs to promote the idea that it’s business-friendly through every avenue, including the city's social media accounts, Prince said.

The city also should become more welcoming to businesses by addressing the persistent issue of crime, he said.

“Crime is something that’s ongoing,” he said. “We need to have an adequately staffed police department so they can do their jobs. We need to encourage existing business to have well-lit and clean areas with cameras. We can increase police patrols whether that’s city patrols or county patrols in high-visibility areas.”

Sparks-Wade: 'Government is supposed to be business-friendly'

Gary City Councilwoman LaVetta Sparks-Wade, another leading mayoral candidate, said the city’s No. 1 priority is to provide public safety. She said her administration would focus on code enforcement and pulling over traffic violators for offenses like broken taillights to check if they have any outstanding warrants.

The city needs to follow Hammond’s lead and install license plate readers, such as to catch people driving stolen vehicles within city limits, Sparks-Wade said.

“They’ve resulted in a drastic reduction in violent crime,” she said. “If people know you’re watching, it’s a deterrent to crime.”

Though cash-strapped with an eroded tax base, diminished property values and low property tax collection rates, Gary could afford such investments in public safety by reducing administrators’ salaries and professional services fees, Sparks-Wade said. The city needs to focus on making itself a more hospitable place to do business by becoming a safe, clean place with good educational opportunities, she said.

Her administration would try to use Gary’s new federally designated Opportunity Zones to bring back new retail to help make it more attractive to young families.

“Part of the problem is you can’t even get a prescription filled,” she said. “We have one Walgreens left. We have so many dollar stores popping up all over it pulled some of that business from the drugstores and wreaked havoc.”

Sparks-Wade said she would fight to keep Menards in Gary since it was an anchor store that may help lure a new storage facility and also would work to bring in more national retailers, such as grocery stores.

“This is a food desert,” she said. “Many residents have to travel very far to get food or buy outdated food. If you don’t have access to fresh produce and fresh meat, you pay for it in the long term in health. It affects your health.”

Gary could help nurture more retail businesses by offering training to small business owners during their first five years in operation, Sparks-Wade said. The city could put its glut of abandoned buildings to good use, by letting new business owners use them for free or steeply reduced rent at the many government-owned properties.

“Why not use that for redevelopment and to enhance young entrepreneurs?" she said. "You could offer them buildings rent-free the first year and gradually increase the rent every year after to keep their overhead low and get these properties back on the tax rolls.”

Gary also needs to make it easier to start a new retail business, Sparks-Wade said.

“The process by which one secures a business license is staggering. I would streamline the process and make it a one-stop-shop so everything you need is in one place and you don’t face government red tape,” she said. “It’s frustrating to business owners to meet with so many barriers and so many delays. The government is supposed to be business-friendly.”

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.