It did not seem to matter to a vocal group of residents that Gary Mayor Jerome Prince and Reverend Dwight Gardner, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church, saw benefits in the sale of Dunbar-Pulaski Middle School to American Kitchen Delights (AKD), a food manufacturer looking to relocate from Harvey, Illinois.
The company makes pizzas, sandwiches, pasta, wraps, and hand-held products.
Reverend Gardner said it will bring jobs to people who need them. Mayor Prince saw jobs and revenue for the city.
Residents did not want an increase in truck traffic in their neighborhoods. Nor do they want a manufacturing company close to Daniel Hale Williams Elementary, 1320 East 19th Street. They are concerned about a decrease in property values.
These views were expressed during the community forum on Dunbar-Pulaski hosted by 4th District Councilwoman Tai Adkins on September 12.
“We are here to be a partner with the community. We are not here to disrupt your lifestyle,” American Kitchen Delight’s representative Dwayne Carter told the audience.
During the next year and a half, Carter said, AKD will build a private road from Martin Luther King Drive into the rear of the Dunbar-Pulaski property. “None of the trucking companies that work, ship and deliver products or take products from American Kitchen will drive through your neighborhoods. You won’t see any trucks coming through Georgia, 17th and 19th Avenues.”
The company will spend about $1.5 million to clean up the building and on renovations to get it ready for its operations.
“I knew it would be controversial. My first response to Mr. Carter was ‘It’s not going to work,’” Mayor Prince said about the project when he first learned about it a little more than a year ago.
Mayor Prince was impressed with the visit to the Harvey site. “I saw a lot of residents from Gary that AKD provides transportation back and forth. We saw an operation slightly adjacent to a residential neighborhood. I saw people working. I saw progress.”
Mayor Prince said he told owner Shahnawaz Hasan, “I’m not opposed to the project, but there is a process. You’ll have to talk to the council person and people in the 4th District.”
“Would you put a manufacturing plant next door to your kid’s school,” asked Colin McCullough, a member of the Pulaski Community Block Club, who saw the sale as a sign of disrespect for his East Side community. “I don’t see you putting a manufacturer at Ernie Pyle or Wirt-Emerson.”
Reverend Gardner cast it as an issue of Gary’s past and Gary today. Repurposing the school, he said, will bring jobs to the neighborhood.
“The difference between then and now is people went to work. People went to the steel mills and other places. The difference between them and us is that we now live in a city that doesn’t [go to] work.”
He went on to explain the issue isn’t children. “From the point where the road is being built at 15th Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive and between Virginia Street and Martin Luther King Drive, there are roughly 80 homes. The student load in the 80 homes is less than one child per household.
“This plant and the thought process that went into it is making every effort possible to minimize the disruption of the footprint in the community, and it is bringing more than 100 jobs,” Reverend Gardner said.
Councilwoman Adkins called the meeting to let residents know about the sale and the path for the company to begin operating in the city. She learned about AKD’s interest in Pulaski in November 2021. After her first meeting with them in March, she held community sessions in April and June on the project.
She learned about the purchase on August 24th—two days after AKD closed on the property.
Next is a hearing with the Board of Zoning Appeals (BZA). Carter said the company has petitioned BZA for a zoning change that will allow the company to operate in a neighborhood zoned residential. A date for their appearance had not been set. BZA board meetings are held on the second Thursday of each month.
American Kitchen Delights will tell the zoning board what Dunbar-Pulaski’s 30 acres and its contents will look like in the immediate and near future. The company must tell the board its plans for modification and use.
The zoning board can only recommend the zoning change be allowed or recommend the zoning change be denied. AKD’s petition will next go to the city council for a vote.
Another neighborhood concern is re-zoning. They fear it might bring in more businesses and displace residents.
Of all the vacant schools the Gary Community School Corporation has placed on the for-sale list, Dunbar-Pulaski Middle School has had the highest asking price. Initially set at $11 million, the price has dropped to $5 million. It is a massive structure of building additions.
From its initial 1923 footprint in the 1800 block of Georgia Street near 19th Avenue, the school’s walls now extend almost to 17th Avenue.
The Gary school district has not disclosed AKD’s purchase price.