Gary, Ind., is among the most troubled cities in the Midwest, but some residents are starting to feel a bit more optimistic.
That’s because they’ve just elected a new mayor with an Ivy League pedigree and some big ideas. Her name is Karen Freeman-Wilson and when she’s sworn in at the beginning of the new year, she’ll become the first African-American female mayor in the history of the state of Indiana.
But Freeman-Wilson isn’t interested in the symbolism. She says her first job will be to promote Gary.
“We can, in fact, be the next comeback story in the Rust Belt,” she says. “Part and parcel of my work relative to the image of Gary is to not only raise the profile of Gary to the powers that be in [nearby] Chicago, but also to help people in Indianapolis understand the value of Gary, one, to the northwest Indiana region but also to the entire state of Indiana.”
Once in office, Freeman-Wilson hopes to lure businesses and residents to the city with generous tax incentives like selling abandoned plots of property for $1. The mayor-elect also wants a new police chief to tackle increases in robbery and burglary.
That’s good news for Joyce Davis, who owns an art gallery in Miller, Ind., Gary’s Lake Michigan beachfront neighbor.
“We are sitting at the crossroads of America,” Davis says. “We are 45 minutes from downtown Chicago. We have all sorts of opportunities that this community should be able to cash in on and has been unable to do so for years.”
Still, there’s much to do before Gary can start cashing in at all. The city continues to struggle with high unemployment and it’s desperately in need of a population increase. In just the past five years, Gary has lost more than 10,000 residents, many of whom fled to suburban areas with lower crime rates and better public schools. The 2010 census puts Gary’s population at just 80,000.
Still, Davis is optimistic that Freeman-Wilson has what it takes to shake things up.
“That attitude of being open has to start from the administration,” Davis says. “I think she’s got a good handle on that.”
Of course, not everyone in Gary agrees. Longtime resident Jim Nowacki says the mayor-elect’s plans will be hamstrung by a lack of funds.
“The city is bankrupt,” Nowacki says. “In a city like Gary, I would not want to over-emphasize the scarcity of resources for any sort of initiatives and projects and programs outside of the bare-bones delivery of government services.”
It’s no secret that Gary’s finances are shaky. In the coming year, city income will be $13 million less than it was this year. Even so, Freeman-Wilson’s incoming administration is for many a welcome sign of change.
Her victory even got the state’s top Republican, and frequent Gary critic, Gov. Mitch Daniels to stop taking new shots at the city.
“Seems to me Gary has made some real strides in the last year or two fiscally,” Daniels says. “I’ve talked to [Freeman-Wilson] briefly once. Looking forward visiting further. Everybody here wants to help Gary any way we can.”
Freeman-Wilson says she hopes the contacts and name recognition she earned in her short stint as Indiana attorney general in the early 2000s will help. But for now, her mantra is simple.
“We are open to entertain business expansion and we are capable of being a good business partner,” she says.
Already there’s at least one positive sign: The small airline Allegiant Air announced plans to begin passenger service out of Gary’s airport in February. It will be first commercial flight out of the city in about six years.