GARY — City leaders have ambitious plans when asked to envision Gary's 20-year road map.
“We need to change our mindset as a community,” Mayor Jerome Prince said. “We should be the ones telling our stories, but, first, we need to rebuild our confidence in what have to offer.”
Prince and other city leaders said 20 years from now, they see a city "economically revitalized," with large employers bordering the city’s edges, generating hundreds of jobs that draw residents home and keep them in Gary.
City spokesman Michael Gonzalez said leaders envision razed abandoned buildings and littered lots cleaned following "years of active code enforcement."
And entities such as the Gary Community School Corp. and the Gary Redevelopment Commission, public libraries and private property owners, will take ownership by contributing to the city's cleanup, he said.
Prince said a 20-year look into the future requires a re-imagining of Gary and "an innovative approach to our potential, but, that also means having a firm grasp of our present and appreciating our long history."
“Some of Gary’s greatest moments have come when the city was innovative in our manufacturing, our education and our culture,” Prince said. “We have all the tools we need, a great location, an airport with soaring potential and proximity to Chicago.”
Getting there will be a challenge, however, with Gary's crumbling, delinquent property tax base, astronomical property tax rates, declining population, its struggling school district, and high crime.
Reversing the population decline will take a united front of improving public safety, strengthening the educational system and providing good paying jobs and opportunities for young people to start their own businesses, officials said.
Prince said he hopes strong leadership and strong community can help turn Gary around.
“We have been focusing on public safety, cleaning up the city and laying the infrastructure for economic development, and, all of those things critical,” Prince said. “Over the years, I have seen Gary residents step up and initiate their own cleanups, businesses and activities for young people."
City officials said the Gary Police Department’s leadership team has begun working with other law enforcement agencies to identity and address unsafe areas throughout the city. Part of that will mean opening satellite offices in different neighborhoods and working closely with state and county police.
Communities with a sense of hope and leadership thrive, and become models, just as Gary once was considered The City of the Century, Gonzalez said on behalf of the city.
"Before we can have an economic revitalization, we have to believe we can make that revitalization happen,” Eric Reaves, the city's new director of community investment. “As a community, we have to change the negative tones by changing our reality and accentuating the positive.”
Gary’s opportunities include taking advantage of access to Lake Michigan with shipping and entertainment options. The Gary/Chicago International Airport, along with its international customs post, already is serving a very active market for smaller planes, but, with the runway expansion and open, available land, there will be more opportunities to move cargo and cement its position as Chicago’s third airport.
Ample access to three Class 1 railroads and free expressways and the Indiana Toll Road mean companies can move raw goods and supplies easily and cost effectively.
The South Shore commuter line’s plans to install a double-track through Gary will mean more Chicago workers will be enticed to buy homes with lower costs and lower taxes in Gary.
“Gary literally is at the crossroads of our country, so, we really need to focus on pulling all of these assets and our location together to build our economic options,” Reaves said.
In recent months, under new mayoral leadership, city staff are being reassigned to use their strengths to make it easier for businesses to do business with the city, he said. An improved Constituent Services department procedures means city workers are addressing residents concerns sooner, and Code Enforcement team has stepped up its efforts, identifying problems district-by-district and conducting blitzes on problematic area.
City officials also continue to catalog Gary’s stock of buildings that are ready to be developed and offered on the open market.
Leadership campus, diversifying the workforce
Some key development projects happening now are sure to have a ripple effect on Gary’s workforce over the next 20 years.
Projects like the Hard Rock Casino in Gary will have a major impact on drawing supporting small businesses and suppliers to Gary.
The runway expansion is sure to draw more cargo, international customs and private aircraft business, as Chicago’s two airports become increasingly congested. A coding academy in Gary will open entirely new opportunities for countless residents. Partnerships with different educational associations will mean more access to a college education, and a renewed focus on developing skills for the industrial trades will mean significantly more jobs ready-to-work residents.
Neighborhoods should see drastic changes over the next 20 years, including University Park, which will grow as more educational institutions and companies that serve them move closer to potential students. The new Hard Rock Casino-Northern Indiana in Gary will bring suppliers — and their employees — into Gary, and, they will be looking for homes, city leaders said.
In 2020, the city's downtown area will also see drastic changes as the city's plans for a "Leadership Campus" comes to fruition, Gonzalez said.
Prince campaigned on a number of initiatives, including a long-term plan of creating a walkable leadership campus — a well-designed, area of city with a walkable, attractive complex of city, county and state offices and social services agencies working together. The campus also will be home to schools, where teaching and learning will replace our differences over who provides that education, leaders said.
Ultimately, how Gary strikes a balance between maintaining its manufacturing and steel workforce and recruiting more progressive employers and diversifying its workforce will be key.