Gary mayor lauds progress in 2012, plans for 2013
By Michael Gonzalez Post-Tribune correspondent February 26, 2013 4:12PM
Updated: March 28, 2013 6:43AM
GARY — In her second State of the City speech, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson roused a large audience with a litany of accomplishments and promises to keep fighting to bring more jobs to the city and demolish the former Sheraton Hotel, a nagging symbol of rough times past.
After the speech, which packed 650 residents, business people and supporters into the Genesis Convention Center, Freeman-Wilson lauded her staff, said she will focus on job creation and said she wished she had handled the layoffs of 15 emergency medical technicians differently.
“We know we are destined to return to our rightful place as the beacon of Northwest Indiana,” the mayor said to the last of several standing ovations.
Freeman-Wilson spoke of surprises her staff encountered when she took office last January: Federal officials were scouring the city, identifying compliance problems; the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development threatened to take over the Gary Housing Authority; the city and the Canadian National railroad were at a standstill in moving part of the company’s operations to Gary; and Gary owed backpay to officers amid a spiraling budget deficit.
“It wasn’t because of mismanagement, but it was because of the devastating impact of property tax caps on the city,” Freeman-Wilson said.
Since then, the Gary/Chicago International Airport has landed Allegiant Airl, including meeting 10,000 bookings that brought in some extra federal incentive money. Also, Gary has been working with state and federal officials on building a brownfield remediation project, and millions of dollars in federal grants have come to Gary for environmental and investment projects, Freeman-Wilson said.
She also spoke at length of the University Park Plan, a multiyear project with Indiana University Northwest, Ivy Tech Community College and others to spruce up the mid-Glen Park area to draw residents and businesses to the neighborhood.
Another promise was a Dollar House Program, which would encourage residents to buy a house for $1 in exchange for keeping up the properties and staying in the city. She expects to launch the program in 30 days.
As for public safety, Freeman-Wilson said the Police Department is working with IUN’s School of Public and Environmental Affairs to increase police present on city streets.
One of the standing ovations came from Freeman-Wilson’s promise to tear down the abandoned Sheraton Hotel, immediately south of City Hall. The building will come down by the end of July, she said, and it will start an era of fixing up the many entries, or “gateways,” into Gary, the mayor said.
But, the city still has daunting challenges, including an official 15.9 percent unemployment rate, which, the mayor said, may actually be closer to 40 percent when accounting for residents who are no longer looking for work.
“Creating jobs remains a top priority” for 2013, Freeman-Wilson said after the speech. “There are so many layers to it, from training to historical discrimination, but we have to address it.”
As for 2012, Freeman-Wilson said she wished she had handled the layoff of 15 EMTs differently, discussing the financial state of emergency services sooner.
“I would’ve liked to have made it clearer to those emergency services workers, whose positions were eliminated, much earlier on what our intentions were,” she said.
Earlier in the speech, Freeman-Wilson said those layoffs marked “one of the most difficult, saddest days” in her young administration.