Gary mayor addresses city’s toughest issues
BY MICHAEL GONZALEZ Post-Tribune correspondent February 19, 2014 9:48PM
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson
Updated: February 20, 2014 2:01AM
GARY — Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson tackled some of the city’s toughest issues before lauding her administration’s accomplishments and getting personal in her third annual State of the City address Wednesday.
The mayor’s address was short on new proposals, but she took on a personal tone that resonated with the hundreds of attendees in the sold-out event at the Genesis Convention Center.
After a brief video highlighting 2013 accomplishments, Freeman-Wilson got to business, calling the relatively high murder rate in the city “the Achilles’ heel of our administration.”
She announced a new task force, featuring the U.S. Marshal Service, to find and handle “the most active violent criminals in Gary,” who she said make up about 1 percent of the population.
The mayor also called on the City Council to pass an ordinance requiring all gas stations and convenience stories in the city to operate security cameras on their properties after 10 p.m. each night and asked business owners to give convicted felons job opportunities.
“We have the ability to know where that 1 percent is at all times,” Freeman-Wilson said. “We want to catch them doing right and help them stay on track.”
Freeman-Wilson also had strong words for Homrich Inc. of Carlton, Mich., the company that won a contract to begin demolishing the shuttered Sheraton Hotel, the huge eyesore facing City Hall. The mayor said last week she learned the contractor was not in compliance with environmental regulations or city local hiring practices.
“I conducted a meeting in my office to put the company on notice that before I allow them to jeopardize our relationship with environmental oversight regulators or ignore qualified citizens that I am entrusted to serve that I would shut down the project and litigate it myself.”
Freeman-Wilson acknowledged delays and environmental troubles with the runway expansion and barrier removal project at Gary/Chicago International Airport, but she lauded the public-private partnership that could bring up to $100 million in investments over 40 years, with $25 million scheduled to be invested in the next three years.
Late last year, AvPorts, a Virginia-based company, along with Guggenheim Capital and Loop Capital won the contract to manage the development of the airport.
Freeman-Wilson also spoke of working with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, on cleaning up problems with the Gary Housing Authority. Last summer, in what she called “the hardest decision of our administration,” the city turned management of the GHA to HUD, following numerous complaints by residents about their living conditions.
Many of those conditions persist, Freeman-Wilson said, but the city and HUD also have uncovered more than $5 million that can be reinvested into improving living conditions. She did not offer any more details.
The mayor listed a string of successes last year, including opening housing developments like Comfort Villas, for low- and moderate-income families, the Gardens on Carolina for seniors, veterans’ housing and a number of job fairs and movement on the University Park project, designed to rehabilitate the Glen Park section of the city.
She took a more personal tone toward the end of the speech, however. Expressing her faith in God, Freeman-Wilson said she and her staff have struggled with problems facing residents and even comforting loved ones of people who lost their lives in the city.
“The truth of the matter is that there are some days that this job literally brings me to my knees,” she said. “But that is where my faith comes in, the faith that I have been anointed to lead this city in such a time as this.”