By Joe Van Dyk
First, I am biased. I have been in Mayor Karen’s administration since day one, and I’m damn proud of it. We have made significant progress coming back from decades of neglect and solving challenges that are truly generational in nature. Challenges that have grown for decades and are finally being solved. It would be absolutely devastating for our city to change leadership at this critical time.
I remember how different things were when we started in 2012, but I think sometimes it’s easy to forget.
I remember the husk of the Sheraton hotel that loomed over downtown, literally casting a shadow over City Hall and serving as a reminder of how far Gary had fallen, to everyone passing by on the toll road, riding the South Shore rail line, or coming downtown for government business. It’s now gone and our downtown is remarkably more comfortable.
I remember the Gary State Bank building in danger of turning into another Sheraton, itself. Now its lights are on at night and the abandoned storefronts once adjacent are replaced by a full parking lot.
I remember partnering with the University of Chicago, because of Mayor Karen’s work with the university, to help tackle blight and vacancy. I remember nobody having an accurate count or reliable information to address perhaps our most obvious problem. Now we have a full account of property conditions.
I remember walking door-to-door and compiling information on each property in the city with volunteers and partners. And I remember, based on that data, Gary receiving the most funds ever awarded for demolition in Indiana’s history. And then the second highest award ever. Mayor Karen’s administration has demolished or deconstructed more than 1,200 properties in just six short years.
I remember working in the zoning office and using 20-year-old forms created on a typewriter in the 1990s. And I remember not having a database to track building permits, business licenses, and site plan meeting minutes. Now you can get permits online and departments work from a single system.
I remember meetings with the federal government because many departments were out of legal compliance. I remember discussing the fate of the Housing Authority for the same reason. But I also remember identifying solutions to difficult problems with those same government agencies offering unprecedented assistance because of Mayor Karen’s initiative and credibility.
I remember my dead-end street never being plowed in the winter before. Now it is cleared with almost every snowfall.
I remember the hodgepodge of old trash cans, mine a different bin than my neighbor’s, and the city receiving countless complaints about the garbage collectors. We all have the same trash cans now and I have no trouble with collection.
I remember downtown being a brutal rollercoaster. 4th Avenue, 5th Avenue, 8th Avenue, Broadway, Massachusetts, Grant have all been paved.
I remember when the ballpark restaurant sat vacant. There was no R&R Grill. No ArtHouse across the street. No Miller Bakery Café on Lake Street. No 18th Street Brewery or Tequila & Tacos. No Indie Indie Bang Bang, Vibrations Juice Bar, J’s Breakfast Place, Foody’s, All Pets Supplies, Anna’s Kombucha Café, Stubborn Pizza, Que’s Lounge, and no Buzz Box Wings.
I remember when state agencies were extremely wary to even answer the phone from a City of Gary department head. Now we enjoy an excellent working relationship with the IEDC, IHCDA, State Board of Accounts, and the Governor’s office. That comes from having a mayor who is often the smartest person in the room and also the most passionate.
I remember when large employers would not seriously consider Gary, citing the stalled airport runway project and no coherent economic development program to speak of. That was before Alliance Steel decided to invest $20 Million and bring 130 high-paying jobs to Gary. Before US Steel announced a $750 Million commitment to Gary Works. Before T&B Tube, Edsal Manufacturing, and Verduyn Tarps all relocated to Gary. Before nearly $50 Million in new private investment at the Gary-Chicago International Airport.
You would know very little of this if you solely follow the local regional newspaper. Coverage has been poor and biased at best; anti-Gary propaganda at worst. There was the editorial about the foolishness in reaching out to Amazon; about how the City should’ve instead focused on landing a distribution center. An Amazon delivery center has since opened in Gary, and it’s growing exponentially.
There was an editorial suggesting the state take over Gary, saying we were a lost cause. The Governor responded that same week expressing no interest in that concept; instead, he announced a joint economic development effort that landed a $500 million investment in Gary and, that same day, awarded Gary a $19 million infrastructure grant.
Perhaps most remarkable was the editorial condemning Mayor Karen for being elected President of the National League of Cities, a national network of cities across the country that works to solve problems and brings resources to aid in that work. Mayors from all over America responded, dumbfounded at such short-sightedness.
That same news outlet that endorsed a state takeover also endorsed another candidate. Mere days after filing for the election. Without hearing a single idea.
It’s easy to forget how far we have come, but even the most critical observer has to acknowledge significant progress in a very difficult environment. Everyone should acknowledge the challenges that lie ahead for our city. But we also must acknowledge the very real progress over the past seven years.
It would be a huge mistake to change leadership at this critical time, after we’ve accomplished so much, with so much at stake. It’s easy to forget how different Gary was not too long ago. We simply cannot afford to start over. Mayor of Gary is a tough gig; it is not an entry-level job.
The city has momentum and opportunity that was unthinkable seven years ago. We are on the verge of fundamentally changing the city’s economic fortunes for the better with Buffington Harbor legislation. Work that has taken years to advance, thanks to Mayor Karen’s relentless advocacy and credibility with partners from all over the state. Hundreds of millions of dollars in both public and private investment are queued up thanks, in part, to Mayor Karen’s careful planning and steadfast commitment.
We have come so far, let’s not blow it now.