Council approves plans to rid blight and repair schools

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Decaying Emerson High School Building

By: Giavonni Nickson

As the year creeps towards a close, the Gary Common Council approved a comprehensive plan to lead the city out of blight toward brighter days and support state debt relief to repair schools.

Tuesday, during its second to last meeting before new council members and Mayor-Elect Jerome Prince join the administration, Gary’s Common Council reviewed and voted on a full list of ordinances and resolutions. The council unanimously agreed to pass a resolution to approve the 2019 comprehensive plan sponsored by the Department of Redevelopment.

Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said the new plan reflects a grassroots approach to comprehensive planning as compared to the previous 2008 plan.

“This is the culmination of about a year and a half of work that was done. It was done under the auspices of the redevelopment commission. One of the things that was unique about the development of this comprehensive plan is that there was a committee of citizens who actually led the work,” said Freeman-Wilson.

Citizen-led committees met regularly and talked about what they wanted in their neighborhoods with a re-imagined vision of Gary. Citizens agreed that the plan needed to address the issue of extensive land vacancy and neighborhood distress throughout the city.

The 400-plus-page plan evaluates land usage in Gary’s 12 neighborhoods, highlighting the need for flexible zoning in distressed residential areas with high vacancy rates and withdrawn investment.

Redevelopment Commission Director A J Bytnar stepped to the podium Tuesday night to address council questions and elaborate on the plan. “It’s a guide and repository. It’s a reference point for other specific neighborhood plans and ordinances,” said Bytnar.

The 2019 plan will serve as a guide on how to operate in the city after more than a decade of declining population and property deterioration.

“Lack of planning in Gary’s early development and poor land-use decisions in recent decades have resulted in impractical and conflicting land-use patterns across the city, with residential neighborhoods too close to heavy industry and heavy rail, and industrial lands directly abutting sensitive natural habitats,” the report states.

The plan calls for a change to the existing model of land use and a dynamic approach to transform vacant land into assets to redevelop and grow. Councilman Mike Brown said he supports the plan because he has seen the work being done.

Freeman-Wilson confirmed that Mayor-Elect Jerome Prince received a full briefing on the plan so that, “the next administration quite frankly can move forward with the implementation of this comprehensive plan.”

The comprehensive plan was made available to the public 10 days prior to being passed. Some community members said that notice was insufficient and did not lend to adequate time for review. Others questioned why the plan was being approved by an administration that will not be around as of January 1, 2020.

Amidst the city’s administration changes Freeman-Wilson confidently stated, “If you look at the product, and what we have come up with you will see that it is a good plan that can be built on for years to come.”

As the meeting agenda moved forward, heated discussion ensued over a resolution regarding the Gary Community School Corporation.

Attorney Tracy Coleman and West Side Leadership Academy PTSA Vice President Robert Coleman asked the council to take a stand and demand that Gary School Corporation’s debt be relieved so Westside can be repaired and the students get the resources they need.

“Schools need more resources, and children deserve our best,” said Attorney Coleman. “The state of Indiana has money in surplus. We want local control back so we can elect the people that represent us.”

The proposed resolution sought debt relief from the state to support West Side Leadership Academy building repairs and resources for students.

Councilwoman Linda Barnes-Caldwell suggested that the plan include relief for all schools, not just West Side.

Councilman Mike Brown applauded the work done by West Side’s PTSA and said the push for West Side can propel state debt forgiveness and resources for middle schools. “This can be the blueprint. If we try to do too much we may not be successful,” said Brown.

“Sixty percent of our children are in poverty. This harsh economic reality has been years in the making. We don’t need a takeover, we need resources and local control,” said Attorney Coleman. Councilwoman LaVetta Sparks Wade called the poor condition of Gary schools a class issue.

COUNCIL PRESIDENT RONALD BREWER listens during a council meeting where a plan was approved to remove blight and repair vacant schools.

Council President Ronald Brewer expressed concerns about seeking local control without having a plan in place. “When there was local control, money was put into Emerson, then it closed. We need a plan for city control. It sounds good but let’s think about what we are asking for. We cannot go down state and lobby for one school,” said Brewer.

During the meeting Robert Coleman accused the council of passing the buck, which created lots of tension and murmurs among the council and attendees.

The council passed a motion to amend the resolution to include repairs for all schools based on a repair assessment that Freeman-Wilson said has already been completed and is accessible.

The amended resolution reflects the priority of the council and the community as stated by Councilman Brown, “It’s all about the children.”

Giavonni is a passionate freelance writer native of Gary IN. She covers business, politics, and community schools for the Chicago/Gary Crusader.

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