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Future of convention center uncertain as leaders discuss financial woes

By Erick Johnson, Gary Crusader

It was once a proud symbol of Black achievement that ushered in a new era in Gary’s history.

For decades, the Genesis Convention Center—a multi-purpose arena—hosted sporting events, concerts, town hall meetings, public memorials, and even Gary’s annual State of the City address. But the house that Gary’s first Black mayor built as a powerful testament of hope and resilience faces an uncertain future. After white flight, it was built to revitalize Gary, but over time, the convention center has become a cash cow that loses more money than it brings in.

With lingering financial woes and rising maintenance costs, the future of the convention center came up during a city council meeting on Tuesday, where council members approved an ordinance that will redirect funds from the city’s budget to ensure the facility will be properly staffed in 2018.

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THE SHERATON HOTEL, across the street from the Genesis Convention Center, was demolished in 2014 after years of delays.

The discussion sparked a debate about the aging facility’s future—an ironic topic since the convention center was built over 40 years ago to revitalize Gary’s economy. Today, the facility’s operation and maintenance costs are becoming a strain on the city’s budget as Gary’s leaders struggle to pay for other services and needs in the city.

“It’s a tremendous drain on the city,” said Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson.

Council President Ronald Brewer said, “I don’t want to say we’re closing the Genesis Center. But we cannot continue to go down the same path in the way we operate the facility.”

There are some ideas to reinvent the convention center to make it more profitable. Freeman-Wilson suggested that a portion of the facility could be converted into a future casino in Gary. Brewer said he wonders whether the Star Plaza in Merrillville is interested in operating a revised Genesis Center.

In 2016, the owners of the Star Plaza had decided to demolish the 38-year-old facility, but reversed their decision after many public appeals to save it.

No decision was made on the Genesis Center’s future at the council meeting. Freeman-Wilson said all plans will be explored in the coming months. She said any changes in the facility’s future will have to be worked out between her staff, the Common Council and Genesis Center governing board. She went on to say a possible decision may come before the city approves a new budget for the 2019 calendar year.

The convention center opened in 1982 under Mayor Richard Hatcher’s administration. With over 6,500 seats, Hatcher wanted the facility to attract major conventions to Gary as part of an ambitious downtown development plan that aimed to revitalize the city’s economy after many white residents fled the city as it became predominantly Black.

During its 35-year history, the facility has hosted many important events. From 2000-08, the Gary Steelheads professional basketball team used the facility as their home court in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). Thousands of fans from Lake, Porter and Jasper counties filled the center during the CBA All-Star Game in 2005.

For years, the Gary Chamber of Commerce used the facility to host its annual Lakeshore Classic. In 2013, thousands packed the facility during the funeral of former Gary Mayor Rudy Clay. Every year, the facility hosts the State of City Address. Currently, the facility offers event packages that include a catering service.

The facility has fallen on hard times. One of its biggest clients, the CBA, folded and with an aging infrastructure, more clients are scheduling their events at other venues. In 2014, after years of delays, $1.8 million in federal and state funds helped Gary demolish the nearby Sheraton Hotel, which leaders had hoped would boost corporate business. Those dreams never materialized.

In a Crusader article in 2015, Freeman-Wilson, along with City Council members, announced they will no longer support any events held outside the city limits that could have been held at the Genesis Convention Center. The decision came as the city struggled to meet the Genesis Center’s payroll obligation through the end of 2015. Then, the Genesis payroll was running a deficit of $23,074. City Controller Celita Green said a $60,000 transfer of casino funds ensured the payroll was met for the rest of that year.

Despite its struggles, the convention center is still viewed as a staple in downtown Gary—one that’s not going anywhere soon. Demolishing the 24,472-square foot building would prove too costly for the city, and there are very few multi-purpose facilities that could match the Genesis Convention Center’s size and seating capacity.

“It is all we have,” said Councilwoman Mary Brown (D-3). “It irritates me when people say things about what the Genesis Center isn’t, but then don’t do anything to support what it is.”

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