INDIANAPOLIS — A bold vision to revitalize Gary by transforming the underutilized Buffington Harbor area into an intermodal transit center was enthusiastically endorsed Tuesday by state lawmakers tasked with evaluating the opportunity.
The General Assembly's Interim Study Committee on Commerce and Economic Development voted 8-1 to recommend the full Legislature take steps during its four-month session that begins in January to begin turning the vision into reality.
Specifically, the committee said it "supports the continued pursuit of the area's highest and best use as an intermodal hub," and called for "the necessary move of the Majestic Star Casino to an alternate location within the city to ensure that the development can achieve its full potential."
The committee's recommendations are not binding on state lawmakers. The panel also did not prepare or approve any draft legislation to implement any of its recommendations.
Gary's economic development agency is hoping to develop a Lake Michigan port at Buffington Harbor, as well as an adjacent freight rail terminal, that combined with the city's interstate highway access and nearby airport will entice shippers to bypass the crowded Chicago rail yards and instead transfer and warehouse their products at Gary.
State Rep. Bob Morris, R-Fort Wayne, the committee chairman, said after hearing from city leaders and experts about Buffington Harbor's potential, and visiting the area himself, he's convinced this is the economic shot in the arm needed to bring Gary back.
"I can picture this facility in Gary, and I believe that it would be a very valuable asset to the state of Indiana if we could get an intermodal facility established in the city of Gary," Morris said.
The city so far does not have any commitments from freight rail companies looking to locate a terminal in Gary.
Nor is it likely the General Assembly will take the unprecedented step of permitting Gary's lakefront casinos to relocate to a Borman Expressway exit, since studies show that would reduce revenues at the nearby casinos in Hammond, East Chicago and Michigan City.
Already Hammond Mayor Thomas McDermott Jr. is stirring the pot by demanding state lawmakers provide a second casino license to Hammond if Gary's casino is allowed to move to a more advantageous location.
Nevertheless, state Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, declared there is "limitless" potential for a Gary intermodal facility that he said will grow Gary's tax base and create jobs in the city. He pledged to work with any lawmaker willing to make it happen.
"The discussion in this study committee represents just the first step in what could be transformative change within the city of Gary," Melton said.
"Gary is uniquely situated to serve as an eastern alternative intermodal freight hub for rail companies, allowing them to move the products faster and cheaper."
State Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago; state Rep. Vernon Smith, D-Gary; and state Rep. Earl Harris Jr., D-East Chicago, also indicated they are on board.
Though Harris said as the process of turning ideas into workable plans moves forward, he'll be keeping a close eye on any potential negative impacts for neighboring communities.
"Because what we don't want to do is do something that helps one area and then causes huge damage to another area," Harris said.
State Sen. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, was the sole committee member to vote against the recommendation, even though he agrees Buffington Harbor is well-positioned to become an intermodal hub.
But Niemeyer said it's way too soon for the General Assembly to be considering plans to move a casino or investing in Buffington Harbor development, since the city has not secured any commitments from transportation companies willing to locate in Gary.
"I'm not saying this is a bad idea. I'm just saying I don't think we've had enough dialogue and conversation," Niemeyer said.