GARY | There is a potential gold mine at the corner of Fifth Avenue and Broadway, but it will take more than picks and shovels to strike it rich.
Gary leaders are looking for a plan to wake the 32-year-old Genesis Convention Center, their downtown sleeping giant, and some say sports could be the answer.
The Gary Steelheads professional basketball franchise was the Genesis Center's longest active tenant, using the 6,500-seat facility from 2000 through 2008.
Prominent Gary attorney Jewell Harris Jr. ran the Steelheads during their existence and still believes in the Genesis Center's potential.
"It wasn't one event, it wasn't one year, it wasn't two years," Harris said. "It was over the course of eight years when there was some stability for that arena.
"A lot of people got to see it and were impressed with how it looked."
They played in the Continental Basketball Association, a prelude to the NBA Development League, through 2006, and crowds were good with the CBA All-Star Game drawing a record 6,000 fans in 2005.
The fan base came from Lake, Porter and Jasper counties, as well as the Chicago area. A handful of NBA scouts were regulars on game nights.
But it was still a struggle financially, and when the franchise folded, the giant rolled over and went to sleep as a venue for sporting events.
Harris said in addition to its location, what could make the Genesis Convention Center a viable attraction would be establishing a sense of security and improving parking.
"It has to be a pivotal part of an overall downtown redevelopment plan with it as the primary focus," Harris said. "Along with the RailCats stadium, it has the ability to draw more people downtown than anything else could in the near future.
"There aren't anchor department stores down there like JC Penney used to be. Right now, it's government services that are bringing people downtown."
The Steel Yard is home field for Gary's Southshore Railcats' baseball team and functions only in the summer, while Genesis Center is open year-round.
The facility's ballrooms and meeting rooms remain empty. Some non-sporting events are held, but nothing consistent or of critical magnitude.
"The entire facility needs to be marketed, not just the team that's playing there," Harris said.
"That's what the issue was (with the Steelheads). The team had the burden of not only marketing itself, but also doing the marketing for the arena to show it's safe and well-lit."
Olympic gymnast Gabby Douglas, who has Gary roots, was honored there last summer and the event drew more than 1,000 people.
In November, the annual Lakeshore Classic spent a weekend honoring the 1955 Roosevelt and Indianapolis Attucks basketball teams that were the first black high schools in the U.S. to play for a state championship.
Chuck Hughes, executive director of the Gary Chamber of Commerce, has hosted the Classic the last six years.
"The allure of the Genesis Center has been beneficial to the extent that we create an atmosphere for these small colleges and high schools that play in small gyms to where the athletes really feel like they've stepped up," Hughes said. "Once it's set up for a basketball event, it's an impressive-looking facility. But I also think it's woefully lacking the necessary community support."
And that includes his Lakeshore Classic, which drew small crowds that weekend.
"Bringing in Hall of Famers (Oscar Robertson, Dick Barnett) and folks from all around the country, was a marvelous opportunity for everyone to come out and embrace that event — and unfortunately that did not occur," Hughes said.
Hughes said high schools find it cost-prohibitive to have games there, but not college and pro teams.
The Genesis Center Board is led by President Christine Clay and director Gwen Williams, with input from Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, who helped to bring the Harlem Globetrotters to it recently.
Officials with the GCC board told The Times several future sporting events are planned, but can't discuss them until contracts are finalized.
“The Genesis Convention Center is a staple in downtown Gary," Freeman-Wilson said. "As we seek to revitalize the downtown area, the Genesis Center will definitely be a part of the picture."
Freeman-Wilson said publicity from the South Shore Convention and Visitors Authority would help. CVA President and CEO Speros Batistatos declined to comment.
Freeman-Wilson also noted several events are needed at the Genesis Center — not just sports — to make it viable.
"We have to promote that facility. We can't be totally dependent on someone else to do that," she said. "We have to market it so people understand what's available to them."