By Erick Johnson, Gary Crusader
For Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson, it was time to get real about Gary. Forget about the bold visions and inspiring words of faith and courage. At her annual State of the City address at the Genesis Convention Center on February 24, Freeman-Wilson told it like it is, much like her character, Sheila, on CBS’s “Undercover Boss.”
In a candid speech, many received a sobering reminder that Gary—the city that once was a symbol of Black Power—is still struggling to rise even under Freeman-Wilson’s leadership. While colleges and hospitals in Gary are growing and expanding, the city’s fortunes have been low. Foundations and business executives have promised their support, but after all the talk, not much has changed.
As cities in Indiana and across the country continue to rebound from the Great Recession, boarded-up buildings still flood Gary’s downtown while thousands of vacant homes continue to damage property values in the city’s neighborhoods.
With half of the city’s tax base wiped out, unemployment still high, crime and lingering despair, Indiana’s first Black female mayor gave a dose of reality to 400 people who came to hear about the progress to restore Gary to the bustling town it once was.
It was Freeman-Wilson’s sixth State of the City address—one that came five years after the former judge and two-time Harvard graduate rode a wave of optimism as she was elected after returning to Gary seeking to revive her hometown’s economy.
Under her leadership, some progress has been made, but lack of jobs and new businesses have continued to plague the city despite Freeman-Wilson’s efforts.
Gary’s population decline has slowed, going from 80,294 in 2010 to just over 77,000, but it’s nowhere near the 200,000 residents who lived in Gary in the 1960s, when the steel industry was the bread and butter of Gary’s economy. When plants closed, thousands lost their jobs, white residents fled to neighboring cities, and Gary’s economy collapsed.
For Freeman-Wilson, the effort to turn around Gary has been difficult and frustrating.
“Our residents have to have jobs,” Freeman-Wilson said in her State of the City address. “There are parts of the city where the unemployment rate is three times higher depending on the demographic of who lives there. There are residents who have stopped looking for work and have lost hope.”
During her address, Freeman-Wilson said residents need to take a look at the good and the bad in Gary.
“I could give you the sugar-coated take, but then we’d have to call that propaganda,” Freeman-Wilson said. “It’s a financial tsunami, but because it is not a natural disaster and because the impact is gradual, help has been slow to come,” Freeman-Wilson said.
She added, “We can’t look at Hammond or East Chicago, Schererville, and compare us to what is happening there. We need to study what is happening in our city on our times.”
Since becoming mayor, Freeman-Wilson stated she has created about 2,500 jobs. However, the increase has not benefitted all Gary residents. State officials say Gary’s unemployment is eight percent while the Bureau of Labor statistics pegged it nearly six percent, but Freeman-Wilson said she believes the percentage is much higher.
There was some good news in the mayor’s address. She said $5 million has been spent repaving badly damaged roads throughout Gary and more road repairs are in store for Airport Road and Broadway in 2017. The project will be paid from the new “wheel tax” that was passed last year.
Freeman-Wilson said a tax increment financing district in the former Ivanhoe Gardens public housing development was created earlier this year to help build an industrial park that could attract a shipping center for Amazon.com.
“It’s not that we want to exclude the area outside of Gary. We can play well in the Northwest Indiana sandbox, but it’s because charity begins at home.”