By Erick Johnson, Gary Crusader
It could the greatest comeback in the history of the American city.
Gary, a city whose crumbling economy has struggled for decades with business closures, soaring unemployment, poverty, foreclosures and declining property values, could be seeing a dramatic turnaround so stunning that it would be an urban miracle. All it would take is for one hungry, high-profile corporation seeking to expand with few limitations and an economically-starved city coming together to hammer out a business deal that would transform both entities forever.
Gary is willing, but does Amazon believe that an underdog city can truly be the “Magic City” once again?
The big question is: Will the state’s Republican Governor Eric Holcomb help the city’s first Black female mayor in landing the big catch? Or, will Indianapolis—the state’s largest city that is the predominantly white town and capitol of Holcomb’s Republican government, get the deal?
These questions emerged after Amazon, a Seattle-based multi-billion dollar retailer, set off a bidding war on Sept. 7 with plans to build HQ2. The $5 billion headquarter would be so big, it would employ 50,000 employees, with many positions paying on average $100,000 annually.
The employee estimate is 65 percent of Gary’s population of 76,424. It could wipe out the city’s high unemployment and trigger an unprecedented economic boom in the Gary’s business and housing industries. With huge tax breaks and Gary’s vacant swaths of real estate, airport and proximity to Chicago and major highways, the possibilities and opportunities for Amazon to grow and make headlines could be endless.
Big cities are jumping at the prospect of landing Amazon, but Gary may be the only town that could give Amazon greater respect and impact for turning around an underdog that has suffered since it was deserted by whites when the city elected its first Black mayor, Richard Gordon Hatcher.
They are big dreams that could turnaround Gary in ways the city’s last four mayors have been unable to do. And, the move could address Indiana’s racial and class divide that left the Gary’s predominantly Black residents lagging behind other residents in the state.
With America’s big cities jockeying for the opportunity to become Amazon’s headquarters, the odds of Gary landing the big one are very high. Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, a two-time Harvard graduate, is used to fighting uphill battles as the city’s leader. She has pulled out all stops to get Amazon’s attention.
On Sept. 17, Freeman-Wilson turned heads after taking out a small ad in the venerable New York Times on the second page of the business section. The 579-word letter is written from the perspective of a “person” or collective voice named Gary Indiana. While the letter details “Gary’s” tough times, it also highlights “Gary’s” positive strengths. They include the city’s close proximity (30 miles) to Chicago—a city with nearly 2.7 million residents and whose 9.5 million population includes Gary residents.
The letter urges Bezos to consider the city’s other strengths, including the Gary/Chicago airport, new businesses and the port authority. Gary’s proximity to I-90, I-94 and two major highways are also cited as strengths. About 20 percent of its residential property and half of its commercial property are vacant.
“And land? Jeff, I have all the land you need,” the letter reads.
The ad also includes Freeman-Wilson’s email address and cellphone number. According to one news report, the city paid about $9,500 for the advertisement and plans submitting a formal bid to Amazon due on Oct. 19.
“We believe that the natural assets of Gary and (northwest Indiana), coupled with the positive Indiana business climate and the amenities of the Chicagoland market, make us competitive,” Freeman-Wilson said in an email on Monday.
In one news report, Gary’s spokeswoman LaLosa Dent Burns said the city has been in communication with the Northwest Indiana Forum, but said they’re uncertain “as to how the bid will be submitted.”
Lately, Gary has been on a roll in luring businesses to the city. In July, the city snagged deals with two Illinois companies, Alliance Steel Corp. and HMD Trucking. Both companies plan to build new headquarters in the city that will generate a combined total of 600 jobs.
Luring Amazon’s HQ2 headquarters may be Gary’s toughest battle to date.
As of Sept. 29, eight major cities, including New York, Chicago, Dallas, San Diego, Cleveland, Louisville, St. Louis, and Detroit reportedly will submit bids for Amazon’s new facility.
In Illinois, Gov. Bruce Rauner and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have publicly put their differences aside to put together a “single comprehensive proposal” for the Amazon HQ2 headquarters. On Monday, Rauner and Emanuel’s deputy mayors and several city and state officials visited Amazon’s main headquarters in Seattle to survey the company’s massive 8.1 million square foot company to help determine which area fits the Amazon’s corporate needs.
While Rauner backs Chicago’s bid for Amazon, Holcomb isn’t saying whether he will help Freeman-Wilson’s bid to land Amazon’s HQ2 headquarters. Holcomb said he wants Indiana to get the headquarters, but he hasn’t specified what city, although there is speculation that he wants Indianapolis to get the facility.
In a statement, Holcomb said, “Indiana has a tremendous opportunity to be seriously considered in this process. We are doing what Amazon has asked us to do: coordinating efforts with all interested regions of the state to put our best bid forward. I’ve called on the Indiana Economic Development Corporation to lead this collaborative effort that will culminate with a bid submission that includes local and state incentives as well as recommended best sites.”
In Indiana, there has always been concern that state Republican lawmakers have allowed Gary and its economy to deteriorate without offering much help. Many residents still remember when state officials helped white flight in the city after Indiana’s General Assembly passed legislation exempting only Lake County from the state’s “buffer zone” law, which prohibited incorporation in areas within three miles of Gary and larger cities. Without the buffer zones, white residents helped Merrillville become an official city in 1971 after years of unsuccessful attempts.
Freeman-Wilson acknowledges that her bid is “far-fetched” and maybe not as good as Chicago. As part of its requirements, Amazon said it prefers to be near a metropolitan area with more than a million people. The company is also looking for a friendly business environment.
Amazon officials said the company would also consider urban or suburban locations with the potential to attract and retain strong technical talent.
Founded in 1994, Amazons if the world’s largest internet company. Listed #12 on the Forbes 500, Amazon generated over $135 billion in revenues in 2017 from selling everything from electronics to home furnishings to men’s and women’s apparel online.
Its headquarters in Seattle employs 40,000 of its 380,000 work force. According to the Amazon website, the company pumped $38 billion in Seattle’s economy from 2010 to 2015. The company also owns the Washington Post and acquired Whole Foods in June for nearly $14 billion.