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The vibrant, bustling sidewalks of the business district of Gary's past are a distant memory.

More than 16,000 people once worked at downtown retailers alone, and Broadway often was compared to a mini Chicago State Street, drawing visitors from throughout the Region and beyond.

Today, after the government offices clear out, downtown Gary is a ghost town with few businesses and fewer pedestrians. There's a Centier bank branch and a locally owned clothing store at the central intersection of Broadway and Fifth Avenue, but one would have to walk blocks in any direction to find the nearest occupied storefronts: a dollar store, a liquor store, another bank, and a former Cobras motorcycle club that's now another liquor store.

The once-thriving commercial heart of the city now is so barren that after a Gary Preservation Tour of historic architecture downtown last year, visitors who asked where they could grab a bite to eat were directed more than five miles east to the lakefront Miller neighborhood.

The once-booming Steel City has transformed over 50 years into a retail desert, with stretches of Broadway so boarded up and blight-ridden, the city appears post-apocalyptic.

Save for the Miller section, parts of Glen Park, the truck stops in Black Oak and a smattering of other businesses, there’s not much retail left in the city.

Gary only had 173 total retail businesses employing 1,321 workers in 2012, the most recent year for which U.S. Census Bureau data was available. That was down sharply from 2002, when Gary had 215 retailers who employed 2,433 workers.

City officials report they don't know exactly how many retail businesses remain open as the population continues to dwindle.

Gary records identify active permits for about 400 businesses traditionally considered retail — including stores, supermarkets and restaurants.

But it isn't apparent how many actually remain in operation.

Many are gas stations, corner convenience marts and sometimes seasonal fireworks stands — not the retail shops typically associated with quality of place.

Lengthy stretches of the main commercial drag along Broadway are mostly boarded up and blighted, the paint peeling on faded relics of a long-bygone past.

Despite being one of the Region's largest cities, Gary has far fewer retailers and restaurants than neighboring communities, including Hammond, Merrillville and Portage. The dearth of retail forces residents, including those who rely on public transportation, to travel long distances for basic necessities like fresh produce, prescription drugs and clothes. The lack of stores many other communities take for granted diminishes quality of life, takes a toll on residents' long-term health, and hollows out the tax base, placing more of a burden on homeowners, renters and large industry.

'It seems nearly like having to start over'

Over the past few years, Walgreens and Fagan Pharmacy closed multiple locations throughout Gary. Ultra Foods left town. Menards has been looking to move outside city limits a few blocks over in Griffith. Few national retail chains remain in the city, save for truck stops near the Borman Expressway and fast-food franchises where workers take orders from beyond bulletproof plexiglass.

Even the Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen and Subway on Broadway in Midtown recently closed.

Outside of Lake Street in Miller, a few stretches of Broadway in Glen Park and Midtown, and Grant Street off Interstate 80/94, storefronts across the city are more likely than not to be vacant.

Residents often have to travel outside the municipal limits of a city with more land mass than San Francisco or Miami to shop, whether to buy prescriptions, groceries, fresh produce, clothes, furniture or and other necessities.

"At 50 square miles, Gary's the size of San Francisco," said John Allen, who opened the Foody's Restaurant on West 25th Avenue last year with the hope of bringing healthier cuisine to a food desert. "But it doesn't have the population density. As a retail business, your margins depend on population density and traffic."

There's no easy or apparent fix for reversing decades of decline in the retail trade.

"I don’t have that solution," said David Lasser, president of the Commercial In-Sites commercial real estate firm in Merrillville. "It seems nearly like having to start over."

Retail has been declining in Gary as the population plunged from 200,000 at its height to just over 76,000, at least by census estimates, today, leaving the Steel City with about 6,800 empty buildings a few years ago by the city’s count.

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“I think the lack of retail is a function of changing residential demographics due to population shifts, which have been exacerbated by the multitude of school closures,” Lasser said.

Commercial real estate and economic development experts said the city faces a number of challenges to nurturing a healthy retail sector, including depopulation, the deteriorating condition of many long-vacant commercial buildings, regulatory hurdles, competition with regional retail hubs with more attractive demographics to national retailers and a lingering stigma.

'It’s like the Wild West'

Mark Prusinski, the owner of the 44-year-old Direct from China fireworks store in Black Oak, said it can be tough to be a business owner in Gary. There’s crime, potholes, high taxes, shoplifters and other hassles.

“Sometimes it’s weathering the storm,” he said. “Some days it’s chickens. Some days it’s feathers.”

He said longtime businesses like his 24-hour fireworks store and Bradley’s This Is It, which has endured in Black Oak for 70 years, has deep connections to the city and a “stick-to-itiveness.”

“A lot of businesses left after getting robbed or shoplifted from,” he said. “I stayed no matter what. But in Gary, you can’t depend on the police. You have to rely on your reputation and rapport with the people. The This Is It department store has a security guard to keep away gangbangers so people feel safe shopping there. It’s like the Wild West. You have to protect yourself because you can’t rely on the city to keep you safe.”

'A tough city'

Gary lifers will continue to operate businesses, but the city’s crime issues deter younger entrepreneurs from coming in, Prusinski said.

“Everyone I talk to says it’s too tough for them,” he said. “It’s a tough city, but there’s crime everywhere. There’s shoplifting everywhere.”

Gary's property crime rate has been declining every year since 2010, according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Reporting database. But Gary had 2,581 property crimes in 2017 with only 40 cleared, giving it a crime rate significantly higher than the rest of the state and nation.

With Gary suffering from the higher per capita crime rate in Northwest Indiana, Prusinski said others are less enamored with the idea of making a go of it under such harsh circumstances.

“I was born here. I was raised here. I know how it is,” Prusinski said. "Old-timers like me. .. know how to handle ourselves. But not everybody wants to have to protect themselves. They don’t know how to get by in a place like this. We do because we’ve had to do it."

The city’s infrastructure also is problematic.

“You drive a couple of blocks in Merrillville, and all the streets are all paved,” he said. “Once you’re in the Gary boundaries, the roads are in shambles. The potholes are everywhere. It’s like a war zone. What the heck is going on here? Seriously?”

Prusinski wonders where the tax dollars have been going, especially since he’s repeatedly seen first-hand how steep taxes in the city can be a deterrence to redevelopment. He’s witnessed a nearby shopping center near the intersection of 25th and Colfax streets get sold in a tax sale to a new owner nearly every year.

“It’s near two major truck stops, and there’s a lot of customers who could walk there,” he said. “But it’s $15,000 in property taxes a year. How can somebody afford that on an abandoned building that would cost a half-million a year to renovate? Maybe the city has too much overhead. But you're a business, and you have to do what you have to do. You have to provide services.”

He wishes the city would spend more on protecting businesses and luring new ones.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said her administration has been trying to hire more police officers to make the city a safer place and working with developers to bring in more businesses, such as a popcorn shop and Harold's Chicken that are coming to a strip mall in Miller. Gary also has been trying to encourage more residents to start their own businesses through the ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen culinary incubator and its own Gary Micro-Enterprise Initiative.

Starting a new business in a city with so many rotting storefronts and rusting marquees and broken hopes is no easy feat, Prusinski said. Nor is keeping it afloat.

“It’s a tough city. Everybody knows that, but you need protection from robberies, break-ins and drugs,” he said. “Those are the biggest problems. Maybe there are no solutions. But you want those people not to be afraid again.”

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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.