Some entrepreneurs describe a steep uphill climb in establishing retail businesses in Gary.
They've had difficulty getting information from the city on required permits, trouble finding suppliers that have enough volume to deliver to Gary and a hard time recruiting employees.
One entrepreneur described aspects of the city's permitting process as "archaic and daunting."
Those looking to open new stores have found Gary's retail desert can, to some extent, be self-perpetuating — especially when a city administration throws up perceived roadblocks.
The lack of retail shapes consumer behavior and makes it harder to launch successful new stores, said entrepreneur and artist Carmella Saraceno.
People have nowhere to shop, so they grow acclimated to visiting neighboring communities when they need a gallon of milk, a new hammer or a love seat. They continue patronizing out-of-town businesses even when something opens closer to home, she said.
Saraceno, a sculptor who lives in Gary's Miller section and Chicago, said she has run a thriving business, Methods & Materials — a fine art and artifacts handling and installation company in Chicago — since 1990.
She had less luck in Gary, where she started the Miller Beach Market Place grocery store, Carmella's Stage on Shelby and Carmella's Cafe on the Lake in Gary’s Miller neighborhood, all of which closed within a few years.
“People are accustomed to having to travel for everything,” Saraceno said of Gary consumers. “The habit is to go to Chesterton to the European Market or to the Costco in Merrillville. You have to change people’s behavior.”
Retail-starved Gary residents also have turned to e-commerce because of the dearth of stores in their neighborhoods.
Gary retiree Silas Sconiers vented in an essay on the Medium website for personal essays that he placed several orders a month on Amazon instead of driving on 50-mile round trips to the Southlake Mall area in Hobart and Merrillville and other retail clusters in Northwest Indiana.
"I will not be holding my breath for those businesses to come back to the inner city, and I will not be spending with those who left us high and dry," he wrote.
Gary could do more to promote businesses, such as by putting out road signs directing passing motorists on the Dunes Highway to shops along Lake Street or promoting merchants on its social media accounts, Saraceno said. The city also could make it easier on business owners by making it simpler to start a new business, she said.
“When you go to renew your business license in Chicago, you can do it online,” Saraceno said. “You don’t have to go to first floor of City Hall and talk to a woman to fill out a piece of paper. If you go to the city’s website right now, there’s nothing there on how to start a business in Gary. There’s a link on how to start a business in Indiana.”
The city government should take a more active role in partnering with and promoting small businesses, Saraceno said.
Gary, for instance, could work with NIPSCO if any businesses fall behind on bills, better connect merchants to available resources and give entrepreneurs a better idea of what they need to do to get established in the city.
“They should give new businesses a welcome packet,” she said. “Thank you for your interest in establishing a business in Gary. Here is a list of resources."
Instead, the city seems to create more challenges for those attempting to establish a new business, Saraceno said.
"When I opened the grocery store, I got a food handlers’ license," she said. "You had to go in on a certain hour on a certain day to take a test. The procedure was archaic and daunting. Then I find out I need an egg license to sell eggs in the state of Indiana. You’re, for instance, not allowed to sell eggs from Illinois in Indiana. Why didn’t they tell me?
"All I’m saying is it would be great if all these procedures were included in a welcome packet for businesses starting here.”
Anna Martinez, who opened Anna's Kombucha Cafe on Lake Street in Miller last year, said she found the city employees she spoke with to be helpful when starting up her business.
But she said it could have been an easier process to navigate.
"It would help to have a step-by-step guide for everything you need to do," she said. "I made a huge error by not having the health department come by a second time to approve the kitchen. It was my fault. I overlooked it while trying to juggle a lot of things with the business and family. But it would help if you could talk to one person or if there was a checklist on paper of everything you had to do."
It's not easy to get permits
John Allen said he hoped to bring healthier fare to the city's Midtown section when he opened Foody's restaurant last year.
He found it easier to arrange for inspections from some city departments than others.
"It's an assembly-line process, and if independent thinking is required, it can be problematic," he said. "The staff needs to be more knowledgeable. They just intake people and repeat back the rules to you. They tell you what not to do and what can result in fees and fines — but not how to accomplish what you need to."
He said the city also could do more to promote its existing programs for small businesses, such as microloans, facade rebates and the culinary business incubator at ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen.
"There are a lot of existing programs that people don't know about and that could be marketing better," he said. "They're not out promoting it at small business events and seminars, where the go-getters are."
Allen recently obtained a liquor license and aims to knock down a neighboring building so he can open a patio that will seat 40 diners. His goal is to serve gumbo, Cajun shrimp boils and smoked fish to outdoor diners while they enjoy live jazz music.
But he's not sure when he'll finally get his demo permit so he can move forward with the expansion. No one has given him any indication of how long it will take.
"It's not easy to get permits," he said. "I've got to be candid."
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said the city was trying to establish an online portal where new small business owners could get the permits they need to get started up, which other mayoral candidates have identified as a priority. Freeman-Wilson said transferring the permitting process online could help speed it up and reduce red tape.
Outside of the bureaucratic hurdles, Allen said he also has faced other challenges, including drumming up support in the community, so he's reached out to churches and schools.
For instance, he's offered Indiana University Northwest students 10 percent off on the annual celebration of IU Day at his business, and he uses delivery apps to market to customers outside city limits.
Finding suppliers also can be a challenge in a city where food deserts are the norm and eateries are few and far between.
Foody's has to pool with other restaurants to even get fresh produce delivered to the city. Allen still has to drive great distances to pick up supplies at places in other cities and towns across greater Chicagoland, including Romeoville, Illinois – nearly an hour's drive from Gary.
"Vendors don't deliver here," he said. "There aren't enough customers in Gary. They need a density of food establishments to deliver here, and for that, we need more growth."
'You need businesses to create a livable city'
Gary long has been underserved by businesses, which contributes to the ongoing population exodus.
The city's population peaked at 178,320 in 1960, back when it was the second largest city in Indiana. Gary's population since has sunk to an estimated 76,000 people after decades of steady decline, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
“The biggest single factor in urban economic success is human capital,” Saraceno said. “It’s talent. Gary is full of talent. There’s so much talent here.
"It goes back to the role of the government and how do they harness that. So many talented people leave because they have no place to fit in.”
Though Gary's unemployment rate consistently ranks among the highest in the state, with the ongoing migration, fledgling businesses can have trouble finding workers.
Allen discovered that out when opening Foody's Restaurant last year.
He's had to turn to Uber Eats, DoorDash and other delivery services because he's had a hard time hiring and retaining delivery drivers of his own.
"We had a delivery person, but it's very difficult to find enough reliable employees," he said.
With so many challenges and no guarantee of community support, it’s a huge risk to start a small business in Gary, Saraceno said.
She said she attempted it repeatedly as a serial entrepreneur in the lakefront Miller neighborhood because she cared about the city and its rich history — because it’s her hometown.
Gary residents should try to support local businesses in the city to help raise everyone's quality of life, Saraceno said.
“You need businesses to create a livable city,” she said. “In a livable city, goods and services are available to the whole range of people: the young and the restless, the creatives and the elderly and working people.”