buffington harbor stock

Buffington Harbor is shown at the lower middle portion of this photo.

GARY — The city’s mayor called on state lawmakers Wednesday to realize the potential behind underutilized economic gems such as the Gary/Chicago International Airport, the Buffington Harbor area and its lakefront.

Pointing to Gary’s past successes as a bustling, industrial and residential foothold in the Region, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said the city is not the same “jewel” it once was but poised to achieve that title once more.

“If Gary goes, so does the Region. And so does the state,” she said.

Ahead of a planned tour of the Buffington Harbor area in the city's far northwest corner, Freeman-Wilson appealed to members of the General Assembly’s Interim Study Committee on Commerce and Economic Development at the airport administration building.

Members of the committee — charged with researching ways to maximum underutilized economic resources in Gary — were in town for the tour. 

The city's Economic Development department has focused in recent years on bringing more industry into the Buffington Harbor area north of the airport, which includes Majestic Star Casino, while seeing the land directly across from the airport as appealing more to logistics operations, such as trucking or distribution businesses.

“This would be a tremendous shot in the arm for Gary, and the rest of the state,” Freeman-Wilson said.

State Sen. Lonnie Randolph, D-East Chicago, said the city has “long been neglected."

"Imagine how well the county would be doing if the General Assembly invested more in Gary, in Northwest Indiana?” Randolph said.

State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, said the city’s Economic Development department has partnered with a firm to conduct a feasibility study for the Buffington Harbor area to determine its “highest and best use” for developers.

Those findings will be reported on at the committee's next meeting Oct. 15, he said.

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“We’re not here asking for a handout, but a strategic partnership with the state to leverage resources … and turn this city around,” Melton said.

Barriers, such as needed environmental remediation, would be analyzed in the study, Freeman-Wilson said. About a third of land is either protected wetlands owned by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources or polluted Superfund sites that can't be developed as they currently exist.

Moving the Majestic Star Casino to land at Interstate 80/94 would open up that harbor for development that could be financed through the Port Authority, the mayor said earlier this year. 

The city could seek state assistance in the form of incentive packages through the Indiana Economic Development Corp. and remediation grants through the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.

Those are just examples, but both could help bring investors to the airport and Buffington Harbor, Freeman-Wilson said.

Construction projects by tenants like fixed-base operators Gary Jet Center and B. Coleman Aviation have propelled the airport forward in recent years. And the extended runway opens up a world of possibilities, she said.

“The airport is a ‘textbook case’ example of the use of public/private resource to develop something to its potential. But it’s still a work in progress,” Freeman-Wilson said.

The city also recently reactivated its Port Authority board, designating the entire city as a port. The designation could mean sales tax savings on construction materials for developers who choose to build in Gary, officials said. 

Committee chairman Bob Morris, R-Fort Wayne, said he is “fascinated” by the import/export potential due to the city's proximity to Chicago.

State Sen. Rick Niemeyer, R-Lowell, said Wednesday’s meeting stressed the fact that “we need to move forward.”

“We need to move forward and make Gary part of the county’s economic engine again," Niemeyer said.

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Northlake County Reporter

Lauren covers North Lake County government, breaking news, crime and environmental issues for The Times. She previously worked at The Herald-News in Joliet. She holds a master’s degree in Public Affairs Reporting.