GARY — A Los Angeles-based tech company is coming to Gary with big promises, including that it will employ 500 to 2,000 workers and invest $100 million in the city over the next few years.
Akyumen, which makes 5G smartphones, tablets and phablets, plans to take over the long-underused and financially troubled Genesis Convention Center downtown, which it will turn into its corporate headquarters while still hosting concerts for the public there. The company, founded by Aasim Saied in 2013, also wants to transform the site of the former Ivanhoe Gardens Housing Development into a 200,000-square-foot manufacturing plant where it would make mobile devices with built-in projectors that can show video on walls, ceilings, screens or any surface the phone is pointed at, as well as "nanotechnology materials" that go into the phones. Akyumen also aims to build a movie and music studio and a "smart city."
Gary Mayor Jerome Prince called the project "historic."
"Gary was founded to produce steel that built skyscrapers, bridges, automobiles and so much more," he said. "Now, from this day forward, we want to re-imagine Gary from being a steel town to one that builds devices and welcomes technology into a city that so desperately needs a new identity, a new emergence and a re-imagined vision."
The business-to-business database Zoominfo estimates Akyumen currently has 67 employees and annual revenue of about $13 million. The company unveiled its Akyumen Holofone with a built-in projector in 2016, but the product does not appear to ever have been widely available for sale in the United States.
Saied, who said he built a satellite in his parents' garage when he was in the eighth grade, touts his smartphone technology as potentially transformative.
"Akyumen makes smartphones. But we make smartphones with built-in projector technology. You can literally have a theater in the palm of your hand," he said. "You can change the way you entertain, educate and do business. So let me tell you how we are going to change Gary. Gary was originally built on steel. What is stronger than steel? Nanotechnology. Anyone who knows science knows it. We will bring nanotechnology to make Gary stronger and the most powerful city in the United States in manufacturing high-tech."
After winning the Democratic primary last year, Prince started to focus on bringing new industries and employment opportunities to the city, particularly in technology, in order to help diversify a city that has been losing its manufacturing base and population since the 1970s. His team met Saied at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas and picked him up in a van at a Chicago airport to take him on a tour of Gary.
"All they talked about was how to help Gary and its people," he said. "For me that was quite important. They have faced many challenges in the past. So have we. So we thought it would be the perfect thing to solve the challenges together by bringing the manufacturing here. We like to work with people who are driven, more than people who like to hype. So I thought in Gary I could find the kind of people who need to be involved in Akyumen."
Saied said the project is fully financed and construction could begin in 90 days. It will take nine months to a year to build the plant, which will be expandable. Akyumen also might consider future manufacturing operations elsewhere in the city.
He expects the company can create more than 2,000 jobs in three to five years and potentially more if all the carriers and distributors in the United States use its devices. Production worker jobs will pay at least $35,000 a year. The company also will employ people in higher-paying "science, technology and mathematics" jobs.
Gary will work with WorkOne to train residents for the positions, aiming to line up job opportunities for as many Gary residents as possible.
"Our company is not about creating sweatshop jobs in the United States," Saied said. "It will create smart jobs."
The plant will be up and running by spring of 2022, but the company expects to occupy the Genesis Center and begin operations there within the next 90 days.
Akyumen will take over the Genesis Convention Center, which late Mayor Richard Hatcher built in 1981 in the hopes of revitalizing the downtown. The 7,000-seat multi-purpose arena, which has been on the market since 2017, ended up largely underused and losing money for the city but hosted the Gary Steelheads and Gary Splash minor league basketball teams, concerts, graduations, NAACP events, political gatherings and even a rodeo.
Michael Jordan once played there. Jesse Jackson spoke there at Hatcher's funeral. Donald Trump, the current president of the United States, even staged the Miss USA beauty pageant there twice in 2001 and 2002.
Prince said it was still under negotiation whether Akyumen would buy or lease the convention center and for what price.
Saied said the company would still host concerts at the Genesis Center, where artists like Gucci Mane and Master P have performed.
"We will make good use of the arena," he said. "We are an entertainment company as well. We will throw some amazing concerts."
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