Gary, Indiana

written by Business View Magazine July 6, 2016
Gary, Indiana

The steel city rebounds

“Steel City” – that’s Gary, Indiana’s enduring nickname. That’s because Gary is a city whose fate and fortune has always been tied to steel. Indeed, this town on the shore of Lake Michigan about 30 miles south of Chicago was actually founded by the United States Steel Corporation in 1906 and named after the company’s chairman, Elbert Henry Gary. The Elbert H. Gary was the name of the first boat to deliver ore and limestone when steel production began in 1908, and for many years thereafter, the Gary Works on the southern-most tip of the Great Lake was the world’s largest steel mill.

For decades, the steel town of Gary flourished – particularly during America’s post-World War II expansion, with big steel employing upwards of 30,000 workers. But like any company town is wont to do, Gary crashed along with the very industry that made it; the one that nurtured its economy and swelled its population. Since the city’s peak in 1960, when Gary’s population was 178,000, it has lost more than half its citizenry over the ensuing decades as steel production continued to plummet due to increased overseas competitiveness. Today, Gary is home to only 79,000 residents.

As Gary’s population moved out, it left behind thousands of abandoned properties, and like other shrinking, rust-belt cities in the mid-West, such as Detroit or Cleveland, Gary is plagued with urban blight, a decaying infrastructure, and economic distress. But while Gary, Indiana may be down, it is definitely not out. In fact, according to its Mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson, who was first elected to lead the city in 2011, her hometown may have many challenges, but they pale in comparison to what she deems as its potential. And her administration is working hard to reverse the city’s downward trend of recent years.

Deardra Campbell is Gary’s Director of Commerce whose Department is comprised of several Divisions: Buildings, Community Development, Environmental Affairs/Green Urbanism, and Redevelopment, Planning, and Zoning. She reports that her office is overseeing many projects and initiatives, one of which is called University Park East, or UPE, for short. University Park East is a Gary neighborhood that experiences high rates of poverty, crime, and housing vacancies. But it also has positive assets – it is near Indiana University’s northwest campus and Ivy Tech, which is part of Indiana’s community college system. It also has well-established residential and business areas.

“The City of Gary, in conjunction with our non-profit partner, the Legacy Foundation, which functions as the community foundation for northwest Indiana, received a half million dollar Choice Neighborhoods Initiative Planning Grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD),” Campbell explains. CNI Planning Grants are designed to support struggling neighborhoods by facilitating the development of comprehensive revitalization plans. The plans are supposed to focus on the areas of housing, education, transportation, and jobs, while synergizing the combined efforts of public and private agencies, philanthropic groups, and community leaders and residents.

“We call our transformation plan ‘The Blueprint for Change,’” Campbell continues. “We are submitting our draft outline of our plan to HUD on July 15th, and the planning project period ends in January 2017. We are now in the process of getting our ducks in a row so that we can implement the action steps that come from the plan, once the formal project period ends. One of the objectives of this Blueprint for Change is to provide new, high-quality, mixed-income housing. The Gary Housing Authority had a couple of scattered-site (i.e. single-family home), public housing projects in UPE that were in various states of disrepair. Through a series of community meetings and research, we have developed a transformation plan that includes demolition of substandard housing, to be replaced by new, high-quality affordable housing.”

Noting that the area is traversed daily by 10,000 college students, Campbell also says the research supports that “a coffee house, some type of fast, casual restaurant, and potentially, a small-footprint grocery store,” could also, potentially benefit the area. But most important to Campbell is the fact that the UPE plan is resident-driven. “It is not something where the city is saying you need this here, you need that there,” she exclaims. “We have eight working groups, comprised of residents, representatives from our anchor institutions and other stakeholders participating in community meetings, providing input. And so, at the end of the day, the UPE Blueprint for Change will be what the residents want to see in their community.”

Joseph Van Dyk is Gary’s Director of Planning and Redevelopment. Like Campbell, his Division is intent upon balancing the desires of the residents and what’s important to them, with the infrastructure needs of the city. And in the case of Gary, those infrastructure needs are somewhat unique, mirroring the city’s status as a shrunken environment. “We’re a city that has a lot of excess roads, pipes, a lot of excess lighting and stormwater infrastructure. And this is sort of a new problem in city planning and a new issue to solve,” Van Dyk begins.

“In the history of the world, all city plans have been predicated on growth,” he continues. How do you manage traffic? How do you manage population density? How do you provide resources to a growing number of people? In cities with a fair amount of disinvestment or population loss, like Gary, there’s a new question to answer: ‘What do you do with all of the excess infrastructure?’ We have a city that was built for a growing population of 200-250 thousand people, and our zoning codes reflect that and the way our city is laid out reflects that. And so we have an interesting opportunity to repurpose our city and reshape it with a smaller population in mind that builds in for economic opportunity and builds in for population growth on a much smaller scale – with all the infrastructure already in place.”

While Van Dyk can pose the question, he isn’t sure that a ready-made answer, as yet, exists. “The concept that’s emerged from other cities that are similar in the amount of population loss they’ve experienced, is this idea that you take sparsely populated parts on the periphery of town, work with residents to relocate them to the central city where it’s more efficient to provide police coverage and fire coverage; where it’s more efficient and less expensive to plow the streets and provide lighting. That’s not really an option for us. The outer neighborhoods of our city are some of the strongest ones we have and our central city, midtown and downtown, is really where we’ve experienced the greatest amount of disinvestment and population loss. So, we have to think a lot differently about it.”

Part of that thinking involves going over all of the planning work done by previous administrations, while continuing to collect more data and solicit more community input. “So, we’re doing is a lot of community-level planning,” Van Dyk says. “We’ve been looking at data to see where our strongest neighborhoods are, where our opportunities for reinvestment are strongest, where we get the biggest return on things like repaving a road or fixing a pipe. We’ve also been looking at our blight and vacant property. We have about 6,500 vacant properties and we know that because we went door-to-door and looked at every single property in the city to get a better idea of what’s where. And those 6,500 vacant properties – we see that as an asset; we see that as an opportunity to use vacant land and repurpose it for redevelopment, or for returning it to nature and helping ease the burden on our stormwater infrastructure. So, we’re looking at our zoning and our land use plan to see how to merge all these different aspects to the greatest benefit of our stormwater infrastructure, to the greatest benefit of our economic development opportunities, and to the greatest benefit of the assets that we know already exist, and at the same time, better position ourselves for the next fifty years.”

Brenda Scott-Henry is Gary’s Director the Department of Environmental and Green Urbanism Affairs. One of her Department’s recently completed projects was an assessment of the resilience of the city’s critical systems in case of an emergency or environmental disaster that would affect hospitals, transit, public safety, etc. “Kind of an approach to bouncing back after a crisis,” she says. The plan was devised under the auspices of The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Cities Initiative, a bi-national coalition of over 120 U.S. and Canadian mayors and local officials working to advance the protection and restoration of the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River.

“We’re also beginning to work on clean energy for low-income communities,” says Scott-Henry. “The Department of Energy (DOE) just announced us as a partner through their Better Buildings Accelerator.” Better Buildings is an initiative of the DOE designed to improve the lives of the American people by driving leadership in energy innovation. Through Better Buildings, DOE partners with leaders in the public and private sectors to make the nation’s homes, commercial buildings, and industrial plants more energy efficient by accelerating investment and sharing of successful best practices. Better Buildings Accelerators are designed to demonstrate specific, innovative policies and approaches; each Accelerator is a targeted, short-term, partner-focused activity designed to address persistent barriers that stand in the way of greater efficiency. “So we will begin a two-year program where we will identify an action plan followed by identifying resources in order to implement that action plan and then roll out the activities in 2017,” she says.

Scott-Henry’s Department has also developed an urban conservation team to help address the city’s massive amount of property vacancies, as well as maintain its installed green infrastructure and, in conjunction with the city’s Parks and the General Services Departments, some of its natural areas and open spaces, as well. This year, in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and the Student Conservation Association, Gary is launching the Gary Green Team comprised of youths who are being groomed to do urban conservation work. One of Scott-Henry’s plans is for the Team to do a tree inventory throughout the city in preparation for developing a tree master plan in an attempt to better manage Gary’s natural resources.

Lastly, Scott-Henry mentions the demolition of the old and abandoned, 14-story Sheraton Hotel, the tallest and ugliest building in Gary, and a prominent symbol of the city’s decay and neglect, as one of her “most exciting projects.” The structure, which was originally built in 1971, went dark after just 14 years, and ever since has been no more than an empty eyesore. Gary’s $1.8 million Sheraton demolition project has received city, state, and federal funding, including money from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development. “This August, we will begin the construction of phase one of a green infrastructure design plan for that site,” she adds, happily.

Among Mayor Freeman-Wilson’s many responsibilities is making Gary an attractive city for business investment, now that the heady days of steel are long gone. She sees the city’s future linked to its location and its potential as a transportation hub, able to synergize the energies and efficiencies of air, rail, road, and water traffic. And so, her administration is focusing on is the completion of Gary Airport’s runway extension project coupled with the repositioning of the airport’s rail connections, and the re-industrialization of the area around the airport.

“Once we finished the runway and the realignment of the rail, we understood that it was important to have a plan for the utilization of the airport because it has historically been one of our least utilized resources.” In fact, the airport has not had commercial flights since 2013, and currently only serves private and corporate aircraft. So, the city engaged AFCO AvPORTS, a private management company that runs New Jersey’s Teterboro Airport. “We didn’t know a lot about running an airport and so it was important to bring on a partner who had a level of expertise. We thought that there was a synergy and some similarity to our area and the area that Teterboro covers,” Freeman-Wilson says. “And so, we’ve been engaged in that partnership and it not only involves development on airport property, but it also covers a significant portion of the airport footprint and part of that footprint involves an industrial area that is adjacent to it.”

Freeman-Wilson believes that manufacturing and heavy industry is still viable in Gary, pointing out that U.S. Steel is still the Steel City’s largest employer. “But in addition to that industry, we’re looking to advantage our transportation assets,” she says. “And it’s not just the airport and the development of the airport, but it’s also advantaging the existence of three Class One rail lines, four Interstate highways, five national trucking interests that have terminals here, and the development of a port that will work with the private ports that have already been developed and have already been used on Lake Michigan. So, transportation is one of our major areas, and we’re looking to use all of that to our advantage. And we don’t have to create a lot of this; the interstate already exists, the trucking terminals already exist, and we are pushing to develop the lakefront. And that can then feed into employment for residents. Because any time you’re engaged in economic development, the end game has to be the employment of local residents. And that’s always at the forefront of any development that we do.”

Another one of Gary, Indiana’s nicknames is the “Magic City.” And some naysayers opine that it will take some nifty magic to produce the Steel City’s rebound. But Mayor Freeman-Wilson and her team are not under any illusions that Gary’s long decline will be reversed overnight; they know the challenges that face them. However, what they have done over the last few years is to begin to ameliorate the effects of the city’s decade’s-old vanishing act, while helping to put some steel back into the spine of its municipal government. “We are doing great things,” Freeman-Wilson declares, “and Gary’s best days are ahead.”

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AT A GLANCE

WHO: Gary, Indiana
WHAT: A city of 79,000
WHERE: : Northwest Indiana, about 30 miles south of Chicago on Lake Michigan
WEBSITE:

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