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GARY | New U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro has only been on the job for four weeks, but on Wednesday Castro made Gary his first visit of a nationwide tour of cities and regions which are creating opportunities for residents through local and federal partnerships and collaboration.

"Gary has great potential given its location, Castro said. "There's a can-do spirit in terms of leadership and a strong partnership, not only with HUD, but the state and the federal government. My hope is this project and others will help catalyze more private sector investment as well. HUD is here to be a strong partner to make opportunity happen."

Castro took office last month and was ceremonially sworn in Monday by Vice President Joe Biden. Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, joined Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson for a news conference across the street from the former Sheraton Hotel, which currently undergoing demolition.

The demolition is part of the "Strong Cities, Strong Communities" initiative announced by President Barack Obama in January. Gary and six other cities were selected for the federal program designed to spark economic growth and development.

Castro said the Sheraton has become a symbol in many ways of some of the blight in Gary and is now coming down for good so the city can have green space, economic development and job creation.

"That is the direct result of the work of the city and also its partnerships with Strong Cities, Strong Communities," he said.

As mayor of San Antonio, Castro became known as a national leader in urban development.

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Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said Castro understands what mayors go through every day and Gary will have a sympathetic ear in HUD who would be able to articulate to others and the Cabinet what its needs are.

 "We know it will take individuals who understand the plight of cities like Gary and who have the influence in places like Washington to make a difference," she said.

Freeman-Wilson said demolishing the Sheraton signifies a new day in Gary.

"We want citizens of this community to feel good about what they see when they come downtown," she said. "We want them to see not only green space but development and the removal of blight. For us, the Sheraton signifies the beginning."

Downtown resident Valerie Lee lives in the nearby Dalton Apartments and has to look at the "eyesore" Sheraton every day.

"It's a huge dinosaur," she said. "It stands over our city almost as a cloud. I hope this will be a spark for more revitalization in Gary. I want my city to continue to thrive.

Freeman-Wilson said the Sheraton is scheduled to be completely demolished by the end of October.

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Lake County reporter

Rob covers urban affairs and other matters in Crown Point, St. John, Winfield and beyond. Previously he covered Valparaiso, Hammond, Gary and East Chicago. He's also written for various magazines and pens a culture blog for The Times.