By Ciara Smith, Gary Crusader
Many have gone as far as calling Gary a “ghost town” when comparing the city to its former glory. With nearly two dozen closed schools and over 5,000 abandoned buildings, the vacant buildings and empty lots strewn amongst the city have long been a sore spot for residents.
On March 7, five construction companies took to the Aetna area to tackle the problem head on.
Rieth-Riley Construction, C. Lee Construction Services, P & C Trucking, McAllister Equipment, and Hasse Construction partnered with Gary’s Demolition Department to demolish up to 10 residential properties over the course of two days.
In a continued outreach effort, Jim Wiseman led the project for the second year in a row at no cost to the city. Wiseman and his colleagues targeted five locations in the Miller area last year, and this year, turned their focus to Fayette, Cass and Benton Streets—a project that would otherwise cost upward of $100,000.
In a statement, Wiseman mentioned his goal was to inspire others to get involved with his hometown.
“When I first came up with this idea it was because I wanted to give back to not only the community we serve at Rieth-Riley, but also my burning desire to give back to my hometown that raised me. When I see an administration working for one common goal, it only inspires me to help. Our hope has always been to make a difference in the communities we serve and to give back. More importantly, we hoped that we would inspire others to step up and offer to help us in our outreach campaign. Well, it worked.”
He went on to say, “It’s gratifying to be a small part of a bigger picture.” Next year, he says his goal is to demolish 20 homes.
“While we have received significant help from the state and federal government through the Hardest Hit Fund, we also know there is a need for other sources of support. And, we are so happy that that has come from our corporate community,” Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said of the tremendous financial gift to the city.
Once the third largest city in Indiana, Gary has experienced steady population loss since the 1960s, and as a result, the city has thousands of abandoned homes and businesses, and it can cost $15,000 per demolition.
In 2014, Gary received $6.6 million to help with the city’s redevelopment from the Hardest Hit Fund Blight Elimination Program. The U.S. Department of Treasury and the Indiana Housing and Community Development Authority (IHCDA) partnered to allow all 92 Indiana counties to compete for $75 million to be released in six rounds.
Five successful BEP applicants were awarded a total of over $15 million dollars, with Gary receiving the largest endowment. A second round of funding was announced in 2016 for $4.4 million. The areas slated to see demolition in the second phase are: Aetna, Horace Mann, Emerson, Froebel, Glen Park, and Miller neighborhoods
One of Freeman-Wilson’s top priorities for 2017 is for similar demolition campaigns to further emphasize the city’s dedication to blight elimination.
“I think the community will be encouraged by the mass show of effort. To get so many houses down at a time shows that we are paying attention to what’s going on, and we have a strong desire to meet those needs in a variety of ways,” said Freeman-Wilson. “Sometimes people get frustrated when all they hear is plans, but when they see the execution of those plans, I hope that’s a source of encouragement.”
To Mary Tyler, an Aetna area resident for 63 years, government efforts to restore the city sounds promising, but frustrating. Counting the vacant lots surrounding her home, the 79-year-old says she’s more interested in next steps.
“That’s great! At least somebody is coming back and thinking about it. It’s a step in the right direction, but if you knock a house down and put nothing in its place, who’s going to keep it up?” asked Tyler.
“I’m tired and I can’t do it anymore,” she said of mowing both her lawn and those adjacent to her property. “It makes no difference to me what’s done after the fact, as long as they keep it up. That lot is going to be next to the park. But if the park department isn’t going to keep it up, who’s going to mow the grass?”
Wiseman maintains high hopes for his initiative building community morale, but recognizes that city rehabilitation will not be an easy feat.
“With all the obstacles that the city and mayor face, they can’t do it alone. I had a conversation years ago just before she took office. She said she wanted to build from the outside in. She said she wanted to reach out to Portage to Merrillville, Crown Point and Valparaiso, because it’s all part of Northwest Indiana. If we build from the outside in instead of the inside out, we can have a future,” said Wiseman.
“And my philosophy is Gary is, was and always will be the heart and soul of Northwest Indiana. When Gary goes, all of Northwest Indiana will go.”