The Crusader Newspaper Group

GEO loses zoning request

Gary Crusader staff report

After hours of emotional pleas and testimonies, the Building and Zoning Appeals Board rejected a zoning variance by the GEO Group, Inc., thwarting the developer’s plans to build a multi-million dollar detention center in Gary.

The decision drew cheers from dozens of protesters, who packed a room that became the site of a raucus meeting. Here, protests were vocal in a second showdown with a controversial developer who came back to Gary seeking zoning variance to build his facility near the Gary/Chicago International Airport.

In the end, the BZA rejected the GEO Group’s request 3-1.

Cheers erupted when one BZA member, Juanita Johnson said she’s concerned about the dangerous and unsanitary conditions and at other GEO Group facilities around the country. She fears the same conditions will exist if the GEO Group builds a new facility in Gary.

“I don’t know how you even have the nerve to come back,” she said to GEO officials.

The meeting drew residents, business leaders and even former Mayor Richard G. Hatcher, and Gary Airport Authority Chairman Stephen Mays. They were many speakers who voiced their concerns for two hours before the BZA made their decision.

GEO Group Inc. officials said Tuesday they’ll take their bid to build an immigration detention center to the Gary City Council after the Board of Zoning Appeals rejected its variance request, 3-1.

The BZA vote came after two hours of emotional testimony against the detention center.

One vocal group of protesters, who carried a large banner that read: “No borders. No cages,” were escorted out by police for shouting and chanting as GEO attorney James Wieser spoke.

Wieser said after the meeting the strident opposition, which included Diocese of Gary Bishop Donald Hying and former mayor Richard G. Hatcher, didn’t surprise him. While Gary’s economy is in need for development projects and jobs, residents say they are not willing to sell out and jeopardize the city’s image and well being.

“Don’t kill our economic engine,” he told the board.

Bishop Hying called GEO’s detention plans “morally repugnant.”

GEO promised to spend about $80 million to build an immigration detention center on 24 acres north of the Gary/Chicago International Airport. GEO executives say the center would create about 200 jobs, including construction positions that would last up to two years.

The GEO Group tried to sell their proposal to Gary last year, but withdrew the proposal after Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson pulled back her support in November after dozens of protesters flooded City Hall.

GEO Group is contracted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to build a detention center to process adult undocumented immigrants whose cases have already been decided by a court.

Many are concerned about the reputation of GEO’s facilities in other cities. There have been reports that detainees have been physically abused and their civil rights violated.

The GEO Group tried to build a facility in Crete, Illinois in 2012 but that died after public outcry by immigrant rights activists.

In 2014, Hobart officials expressed opposition before the GEO Group submitted a formal proposal.

Gary Airport Authority board chairman Stephen Mays in news reports said a detention center could hurt economic development around the airport. He also said the airport is trying to attract a commercial passenger airline, as well as international airlines.

GEO officials are not giving up. They plan to appeal the BZA’s decision to the Gary Common Council.

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