By Karen Freeman-Wilson, Mayor of Gary, Indiana
On January 1, 2012, I fulfilled my childhood vision to become mayor of my hometown, Gary, Indiana. I ran for mayor twice and lost, but it was my passion for my city and my belief that I could make a difference that invoked that third go-round. Since that time, I have been focused on seeing a better Gary for those who reside in our legacy city.
Like so many cities across the country, Gary faces significant challenges-from financial struggles and issues with crime right down to potholes and snow removal. The good news is our challenges are far outweighed by Gary’s assets and more important, the people. This is why I have worked hard to be involved in a number of arenas and to be the voice for the city we all love despite the challenges.
On Saturday, November 10, 2018, I accepted the gavel to become President of the National League of Cities. NLC is the premier organization dedicated to helping cities, towns and villages all over the country build better communities. While I am humbled to be chosen by my peers to lead this organization, my consistent question to myself and others is, “how does being involved in NLC benefit the citizens of Gary?”
Leading NLC provides an opportunity to garner resources for our community. Over the past 7 years, we have secured more than 20 million dollars from public and private resources by way of direct grants and/or technical assistance outside of city government. This has come as a result of developing relationships through networks like the NLC. We have adopted ideas from other communities that have helped us to improve services and improve the quality of life for local residents. For example, our use of data to demolish and repurpose vacant and abandoned buildings came from work in Detroit, Flint and Cleveland. Officials from these cities are part of NLC.
This leadership position will also provide an opportunity for many to see Gary in a different light. Too often, Gary has received negative media about blight in our community; crime statistics; financial woes and educational challenges. While we can’t entirely dispel these reports, the National League of Cities will offer a platform to tell our story-to talk about Gary’s assets and the great citizens and to connect with city leaders from across the country where we explore new ideas and form partnerships on behalf of our cities.
The irony of leading other city officials from 19,000 cities, towns and villages during a time when Gary is facing significant challenges is not lost on me. In fact, there are some who will question whether I can offer any useful insight or guidance to other officials. Recently, the State Board of Accounts confirmed what we have said all along. We have to tighten our belts and get our financial house in order. Two years ago, we began this process by developing a schedule of internal audits and we are now addressing our own findings through personnel changes, training and making even more data available to the public.
In Gary, we have embarked on an arduous financial turnaround while fighting against the headwinds of resource limitations caused by declining property tax and casino revenue. We have been working aggressively to tackle blight in our community through numerous cleanup programs and initiatives. The reality is that many communities have had experiences similar to our own city. My time with NLC has placed me in the company of fellow elected officials who not only understand the uphill climb that many urban cities face but extend their wisdom, advice and best practices to help remedy the circumstance we encounter.
Elected officials in those cities have worked to combat financial woes and create job opportunities for their citizens. They have fought to create safe and thriving communities by addressing public safety and blight. These leaders have also sought to instill a sense of pride and ownership among their citizens so that they will take ownership in solving problems in their community.
Because these cities share our experience and are engaged in similar work, I am uniquely positioned to articulate on behalf of the cities that abound and those that continue to work to build abundance in their communities. The ultimate product we are all looking to deliver is “good government” and this can be accomplished through transparency, innovation and a demonstration of love for the citizens we serve. If NLC was comprised of municipalities that were without challenges, I would question the utility of my leadership.
Some may also wonder about the time required to represent NLC. The organization and I acknowledge that as mayor, home is always priority. In fact, we are able to schedule meetings in Gary and close to home and all expenses related to my service are covered by NLC. The opportunity to lead NLC has deepened my commitment to my daily responsibilities in my own city, while hoping that the experience that I gain will help improve our community and others.
During my year as President of NLC, I will focus on creating a city for all generations and how to encourage citizens to love their cities. We will emphasize the importance of housing, employment and health; special issues facing legacy cities and how civic engagement can lead to better city services. For me, those efforts will begin right here in Gary.
Words cannot express my honor to serve in this capacity, but my excitement is more for the citizens of the great city of Gary, Indiana. At long last, our story will be shared with the masses who either have it all wrong or don’t have a clue about the greatness that brews daily in the city we affectionately call “G.I.”. There is no greater way for me to give back to a city that has given so much to me than to serve with passion and fervor. I love Gary, and it is my hope that by the end of my tenure as NLC President, countless others across the nation will too!