INDIANAPOLIS — A strategic plan to develop Gary into a transportation, freight and logistics hub is set Monday to be evaluated by a panel of Hoosier lawmakers as a prelude to potential state investment in the Steel City. It would include moving Majestic Star casino on land.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, state Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, and two firms that have studied Gary's existing assets and development potential will present their vision for revitalizing the city to the General Assembly's Interim Study Committee on Commerce and Economic Development.
"When we look at all the assets from air, rail, highway and water, Gary has the entire package," Melton said. "I think this is why this conversation is essential right now."
Melton said the plan is focused on making better use of Gary's Buffington Harbor and the land around it, in particular taking advantage of its proximity to Lake Michigan; three top-class rail lines; several major Interstate highways; the Gary/Chicago International Airport; and the nation's third-largest economy in Chicago.
"I can't overemphasize the opportunity that we have in terms of freight, logistics, intermodal and transportation along our waterfront," Melton said.
Last month, study committee members visited Gary to see exactly what infrastructure already exists and what might be needed to entice transportation companies to set up operations in the city.
Melton said he and the mayor this summer also took incoming Indiana Senate President Rod Bray, R-Martinsville, and the GOP House and Senate budget leaders on a tour of the city.
He said the goal was to start a conversation: "How do we maximize this opportunity to make Gary a transportation, freight and logistics hub?
"I believe they walked away with a greater understanding of the opportunities that exist in the city," Melton said.
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Ultimately, Melton hopes the state will agree to partner with Gary — to an unspecified extent — to "maximize our existing assets" and "drastically change Gary's financial struggles, by increasing our tax base and having the development along the waterfront."
Data shows Gary has lost 56 percent of its population over the past 50 years. The city's budget has a continuing structural deficit that likely cannot be closed, due to low property values and dismal property tax collection rates.
At least one component of the city's plan is certain to face headwinds at the Statehouse, since opening the maximum amount of land at Buffington Harbor for development would require relocating Gary's Majestic Star casino to another location.
Indiana lawmakers never have permitted the state's permanently docked casino boats to operate any significant distance from water, and other Region gaming enterprises are all but certain to protest if the Majestic Star is allowed to move to a more advantageous location, such as along the Borman Expressway.
But Melton said he is not deterred by the long odds against a casino move.
"If that comes out in the study that that has to happen to benefit from the transportation and logistics opportunities, I think it's worth us visiting that," he said.
Melton also is confident that developing a second Lake Michigan port at Buffington Harbor won't harm the Port of Indiana at Burns Harbor, which state officials have said still has plenty of capacity to grow on its Porter County footprint.
In the end, Melton believes a partnership between Gary and the state that's focused on developing Gary's transportation and logistics assets will significantly benefit both parties by turning around the city's financial troubles and once again making Gary a net economic contributor to Indiana.
"This is extremely important to the city to make sure that we grow our community and our economy," Melton said.