By Karen Freeman-Wilson, Mayor City of Gary
Recently there has been a lot of discussion about my trip to the Mexico border with other national leaders in the context of my responsibilities as Mayor of Gary, Indiana. This sentiment was articulated in a short-sighted and vitriolic editorial by the Northwest Indiana Times. Because I believe facts matter to a majority of citizens and partners, I wanted to take time to present the truth.
In 2012, our administration took office with a legacy of 10 years of decline due to a variety of reasons. The day we took office on January 1, 2012, there were 26 million fewer property tax dollars than on December 31, 2011; a result of property tax caps, an exorbitant vacancy rate and the subprime mortgage debacle. When we took office, five federal agencies had determined that Gary was out of compliance with federal regulations and outside investors were no where in sight. Since that time, the Gary Sanitary District has embarked on a plan of action with the Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency. The Gary Public Transit Authority is in compliance with the Department of Transportation, the Community Development Department and Gary Housing Authority are both in compliance with the Department of Housing and Urban Development and we have been awarded over $14 million in federal dollars for demolition while securing an additional $5 million from state and county government. When we took office, the FAA threatened to shorten our runway because we had not complied with the creation of bumper zones; our administration completed the airport project after 10 years of delay and investment has followed.
We have also stimulated over $100 million in non-governmental investment to date—entities like the Gary Jet Center, Carmeuse Lime, B. Coleman Aviation, T&B Tube, Edsal Manufacturing, Speedway, Verduyn Tarps, Miller Baker Café, TravelAmerica, Methodist Hospital, Centier Bank, J’s Breakfast Club, All Pets, and others have invested their dollars in Gary. Over the past few years, small business owners have embraced Gary as a place to plant and grow. More than 2,000 jobs have been created as a result of these investments. Our administration has invested $20 million in infrastructure (streets and sewers) and leveraged an additional $15 million from the state and federal government.
We have also ushered in a new era of nonprofit investment. Legacy, ECIER, Bloomberg, Knight, The Center for Community Progress, Kresge and NRN Foundations as well as partnerships with the University of Chicago, Purdue University Northwest, Ivy Tech College, Indiana University, and the United Negro College Fund have led to tangible positive outcomes for our residents and new opportunities that did not exist before. We know that participating in national initiatives with national organizations does not distract us from our obligations, but provides us with more resources, knowledge and partners to help solve the most pressing issues here in Gary.
Gary has become a center for innovation through our use of data (GaryCounts.org and Northwest Indiana crime stats), blight elimination, legislative remedies, green infrastructure, Gary 311 and other sustainable measures. We have invested in the next generation through summer employment for over 1,000 youth, over $200,000 in scholarship dollars raised and/or directed to college-bound students, a renewed summer meals program and investment in the Boys and Girls Club, YWCA of Northwest Indiana and countless youth-serving community-based organizations.
Finally, our administration has made quality of place a priority through our stewardship of Marquette Park; new housing such as NWI Veteran’s Village, the Gardens on Carolina and Village of Hope; development of ArtHouse: A Social Kitchen and the Lake Street Corridor; support of the RailCats, community gardens and urban farms, murals, the Gary Public Library and Cultural Center; continued support of the Gary Air Show, marathons, Gary’s Historic Preservation Tour and other projects and events that have improved life for local residents.
One of the hallmarks of this administration has been transparency. It has come in many forms—monthly public meetings, bi-weekly 15 minutes with the Mayor, open access to citizens and media and a consistent social media presence.
These improvements have come in the face of declining casino and property tax revenues and increasing utilities and health care costs. This has all occurred against the headwinds of convincing public safety personnel to work at wages and under conditions that pale in comparison to their regional counterparts; and motivating city workers who have not had raises in decades.
These are not hyperbole, platitudes or plans, but proven results. Have there been challenges? Absolutely. That is why we have enjoyed unprecedented collaboration in efforts to address financial problems, education, crime, and vacant and abandoned buildings. That is why we have spent an inordinate amount of hours in partnership with Indiana General Assembly and local leaders on behalf of traditional public and public charter schools. That is why we introduced the concept of using Hardest Hit Funds to the State of Indiana to fund blight elimination in our city. That is why we have developed a long-term financial plan to address what has been referred to by experienced financial analysts as a nearly impossible feat. That is why we initiated Gary for Life, an undertaking for public restoration that has seen incremental progress in violent crime despite the recent rash of violence.
Because colleagues in large and small cities across this country recognize our success in the face of these challenges, we have gained the attention of national network news, national magazines, the Financial Times, the New York Times, and other media. Also, I have been chosen to serve in leadership positions in national organizations. It is humbling to have our work acknowledged and be chosen by my peers to lead the National League of Cities as the First Vice President and the United States Conference of Mayors as the Chair of the Criminal and Social Justice Committee. These leadership positions have often allowed me to discuss Gary’s successes and challenges on a national stage resulting in additional support for our work, most recently a grant to connect children to nature and additional support from the Bloomberg Foundation. These positions also led me to stand at the Mexico border with other national municipal leaders, whose cities have also experienced adversity, and protest the inhumane treatment of immigrants. Increasingly Mayors have become the conscience of our country and those who get things done across the partisan divide.
For some reason, the Northwest Indiana Times and other critics have chosen to ignore the facts that point to this progress. But there is something distinctly personal about recent editorials (“Amazon,” “224 Fund Public Records Request,” “City Finance,” and “Gary Burning”) that seem to insist there is only one acceptable way to lead or resolve the challenges we face. Perhaps some have concluded that it is not my place to attempt to lure Amazon’s headquarters to our city, serve in national leadership with other Mayors or do anything else out of the ordinary because it does not fit into a box. This fails to acknowledge a full and substantive local agenda that yields results daily, the requirement of local leaders to multi-task and the fact that many aspects of our progress has come from partnerships cultivated in arenas outside of this community.
If these personal attacks only impacted me, I would simply shut up and take my lumps. However, I am honored to work alongside a group of men and women who labor daily to make this city a better place. Despite The Times’ pejorative reference to the city as a “sinkhole,” we are joined by corporate, non-profit, organizational, the Gary Common Council and other local, state, federal and other partners who believe in and invest in our efforts. For anyone to ignore our collective accomplishments is both unacceptable and unconscionable. The Times and others may minimize our sacrifice and results, but to all of you who engage in the work daily, please accept my sincere and heartfelt thanks.