By Louise Scott, Gary Crusader
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson plans to move forward in presenting the city as a place where potential opportunities would be inviting to interested investors. That might be a very good idea, but according to the information presented during a recent public meeting, the mayor has a long journey ahead to reach her goals.
Joe Van Dyk, director of Redevelopment and Planning, conducted a public forum in the city council chambers Wednesday evening that addressed the many problems that are turning off potential investors and new business projects.
Van Dyk told a packed council chambers that the city’s problems stem from one in five buildings being vacant, 42 percent of its land being vacant, two in five buildings are blighted, a low tax revenue in the city, one in five of the properties in the city are on the tax sale every single year, lingering tax appeals. In addition, Van Dyk said it would cost $100 million to demolish some 6,500 abandoned buildings that dot the city’s landscape.
Even though Van Dyk presented a detailed power point presentation to the audience, some were not impressed by his details on the issues of the city.
One person in the audience said the presentation did not include the city’s aggressive attempt to engage people in the community. He said, “We’ve all been in situations where anyone can join the meeting, but the people who know how to run the meeting will trample you if you try and that’s what our concern is. I see nothing to address a proactive and aggressive way of bringing into the conversation of people who might watch this train go right pass them at 100 miles an hour but could have gotten on. What are you going to do to make sure that there is an aggressive attempt to bring people in to this and make sure that they are not driven out of their communities because they couldn’t move quickly enough to keep up with everything and didn’t know the right commission to address?”
Notably the first issue the mayor has to address is Gary’s low property tax revenues. The problem has left the city financially strapped for several years. It is estimated that at least 50 percent of the property taxes in the city are not being collected from property that has either been abandoned, had irresponsible landlords or property that was lost to foreclosures.
Despite the problems, the mayor is moving forward with her plans. Freeman-Wilson has partnered with former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley to revitalize Gary. The two of them would find investors willing to provide funds to demolished abandoned dilapidated property and then bring in potential developers to the city.
Another step the mayor employed to enhance the city was to bring in architect Peter Ellis. His part in the agreement with the mayor was reportedly to demolished property throughout the city that was in need of being torn down.
One problem the mayor has addressed is catching an elusive property owner who would avoid paying his taxes by filing bankruptcy many times. He would buy property but when it was time to pay taxes he would file bankruptcy. The city discovered his scheme, intervened and took him to court. As a result, the judge barred him from filing bankruptcy.
The mayor eventually went to the General Assembly and asked legislators to pass a bill to prevent people from selling property on tax sales, but had not been purchased. The mayor wanted the city to seize the property that could be developed by commercial brokers. The lawmakers gave Gary an expedited process to acquire the property if it has been on the tax sale a number of times. That was a big victory for the mayor and the city.
Continuing to forge ahead for the city of Gary Mayor Freeman-Wilson went before the Department of Treasury in Indiana to do what had been done in other states by using the Hardest Hit Fund.
That’s when she used Mayor Daley and his students from the University of Chicago, where he is a professor to assess the number of vacant and abandoned property in the city in addition to counting the number of parcels there were. The mayor used the information gathered by the students to go before the Hardest Hit Fund to request dollars to demolish properties.
Even with the Hardest Hit Fund money the mayor said it was still not enough money to demolish a majority of the abandoned buildings in Gary.
Freeman-Wilson’s next idea was to look for a partner who was willing to invest their money in the city. They would become a joint developer while allowing the city to retain the title to the land.
The mayor said, “The plan is that the private group and the city would have a public/private partnership and at some point they would invest dollars to make the property available for development. They will get their initial investment back and any profit that is gained will be split between the city and the private partners.” She said Mayor Daley would not share in that split.
Attorney Douglas Grimes spoke during the meeting and said that all of the issues presented lacked transparency. He said, “This will impact the entire city. Someone should consider a new approach that includes the people. We are about to be pushed out of here and the city council has to see that this has happened before in other cities. There is nothing in place to plan what the realities are.”