By Giavonni Nickson
In a ceremony filled with pomp and speeches, Jerome Prince was sworn in as Gary’s 21st mayor during an electrifying ceremony Monday at the Genesis Convention Center on December 30, ushering in a continued era of hope for a city that is slowly recovering from years of decline.
Prince, who has served as an elected official for the past 20 years, plans to lead a resurgence in the city when he takes office at the start of the new year.
Also sworn in Monday were City Judge Deidre Monroe, Police Chief Richard Ligon, Fire Chief Sean O’Donnell, and incoming council-members Cozey Weatherspoon, Tai Adkins, and Dwight Williams.
The ceremony was attended by hundreds of supporters, residents, and elected officials, including Representatives Earl Harris, Ragen Hatcher, Lonnie Randolph, and Vernon Smith, as well as Senator Eddie Melton.
Prince praised the legacy of former Mayor Richard G. Hatcher while speaking of Hatcher’s monumental election.
“Mr. Hatcher was operating with self-confidence, if not divine providence. His victory galvanized Black political aspirations throughout the nation, sparking a revolution,” said Prince. “I pledge that every day when I go to and leave City Hall, I will pass his statue, think about it, and reflect on the greatness of an individual on whose shoulders I stand.”
Prince acknowledged outgoing councilmembers Herbert Smith, Rebecca Wyatt, Michael Protho, Carolyn Rogers, LaVetta Sparks-Wade, and Mayor Karen Freeman Wilson, thanking them for their service.
He carved out time to recognize his wife of 37 years, DeAnna Prince, calling her his rock, and his mother, LaNita Nickson, who traveled from Florida to attend the event.
During the ceremony, hope resonated in smiles, collective cheers, and conversations about the City of Gary. When asked about Gary’s new administration, Senator Lonnie Randolph said, “I’m excited for several reasons. The new mayor coming in is someone I’ve known for some time, and he has some innovative ideas. I think it will be a new beginning in terms of him being a catalyst for people to get involved, be motivated, and be a bit more aggressive towards the future direction of Gary.”
After being sworn in by Judge Sonya E. Morris, Mayor Prince delivered his message, calling for a new day for the citizens of Gary as he welcomed incoming councilmembers Tai A. Adkins, William G. Godwin, Cozey E. Weatherspoon, Dwight Williams, and Clorius L. Lay.
Prince illustrated a transparent reality of the city and its well-known struggles with high crime, subpar education, and economic development. Prince called these dire issues, red flags. According to Prince, these red flags are indicators that Gary has sunken into an abyss.
Prince admitted that he does not see the world through rose-colored glasses but maintains optimism about the city’s future as he urged residents to “reimagine” Gary.
Just before Prince approached the microphone to deliver his speech, Jessie Cunningham interrupted the ceremony and screamed, “How would you feel if the police killed your kid,” while standing in the front of the room near the podium.
“The police killed my son in the front of the house, and y’all won’t prosecute him,” exclaimed Cunningham, outraged over the death of his son Rashad Cunningham 25, who was shot and killed by a Gary police officer in August.
Protestors loudly motioned in the back of the room with signs and abrasive chants, “no justice, no peace.”
Cunningham and protestors were expelled from the ceremony as Prince successfully calmed the audience and acknowledged the grief of the Cunningham family.
“So, listen, we all understand the sentiment and the emotion of those folks,” said Prince.
During his speech, Prince acknowledged the shocking and senseless shooting of four-year-old Tory’on Dukes, who was shot while sleeping in his home in Gary on December 16. Prince also mentioned Victor “Manny” Diaz, 44, who was shot in a confrontation after his car was stolen at a gas station the same day.
“Let his death be a wake-up call for all good law-abiding citizens in the city to reflect on the abyss, to which we’ve sunk. The only way to climb out of the abyss is to dedicate ourselves to trying to help each other. Remember, we are all our brother’s keeper. We must look around and try to renew our broken bonds of brotherhood,” said Prince. “The bottom line is that the chilling spectacle of the killings on our streets must be addressed.”
Prince enlisted Richard Ligon as police chief to help tackle the city’s crime issues.
Ligon is a retired Army Colonel with over 26 years of service. Ligon served as a Federal Postal Inspector and has completed FBI hostage negotiation training. When asked about his new role Ligon said he plans to regain trust in the community and hopes to grow the police force.
A reimagined Gary includes a strong vision of economic development as outlined by Prince on Monday.
“It is well known that investors look for certain things when deciding to invest. Among them are reputable leaders providing an efficient government, good schools providing an easily trainable and adaptable workforce, and low crime. Remember the red flags we talked about? We need recreational outlets, and cultural amenities, all leading to a good quality of life,” said Prince.
He warned the community to be aware of certain facets of economic development that may have adverse effects.
Gentrification, often used to spur economic development, increases residential stock and property values but displaces low-income homeowners and renters. When big-box stores stimulate economic growth, they often drive out small businesses.
As a solution, Prince proposed a focus on small businesses and enterprises.
“We’ve begun to establish a knowledgeable economic development team willing to cooperate with properly vetted legitimate investors and entrepreneurs. We will encourage local financial institutions to bond viable and micro business enterprises. We will aggressively market this city with the Regional Development Authority to target enterprises compatible with our requirements and our goals,” said Prince. “To be realistic, turning this city around won’t happen overnight. But, as I said earlier, if we’re all prepared to join in, I believe that we can begin to realize immediate successes.”
Representative Earl Harris expressed enthusiasm about Gary’s economic development noting, “I’m looking forward to working with the new mayor and the new administration. I’m actually carrying a piece of legislation that the mayor and I met about a few months ago to advance what’s going on in Gary, really aimed at advancing what Gary can do with the Lakefront.”
Many believe 2020 will bring new hope and a clear vision for Gary.
“I think that the city is going to see a progression. I’m looking forward to thinking outside of the box and working together collectively because that is what is going to take us to the next level,” said newly elected Councilwoman Tai Adkins.
Gary investor and attorney Sabrina Haake said, “Adjustments may not always be easy, but the promise of Gary’s reward will be worth the effort. I think 2020 is going to be Gary’s year.”
Prince talked about plans to glean from the success of the neighboring cities when he takes office in the new year.
Prince said he is eager and excited about getting to work in City Hall standing on the shoulders of former Mayor Richard G. Hatcher and supported by citizens anxious to see the city’s new vision realized.