Can a Very Determined Mayor Save Gary, Indiana?

The declining industrial city has tried all the usual economic-development approaches. Mayor Freeman-Wilson has other ideas.
by | August 16, 2012 AT 11:00 AM

Karen Freeman-Wilson was pretty determined to be mayor of Gary, Ind. She knows success, having graduated cum laude and earned a law degree from Harvard University. She's been a Lake County prosecutor, a Gary city-court judge, the head of the National Association of Drug Court Professionals and attorney general of Indiana. But it took her three tries to be elected mayor. She lost in 2003 and 2007 before winning the Democratic primary in 2011, which in Gary is the whole ball game. That bio tells me she's got grit as well as brains. She could probably be doing something else and making a lot more money, but she says those other things wouldn't be as rewarding or challenging.

She's definitely right about the challenging part. An article last month in The American Prospect, "Where Work Disappears and Dreams Die," is one of several that chronicle Gary's decline. The city, founded by United States Steel and once an industrial powerhouse that was home to 170,000 people, has lost more than half its population since 1970, including 20,000 in the last decade alone. Its poverty rate is 28 percent. Median household income, at $28,000, is $20,000 less than the state median, and unemployment is 16 percent. More than a fifth of its homes, churches and school buildings are vacant and boarded up. Not surprisingly, the city is hemorrhaging money. With a total budget of $47 million, it owes $43 million and faces a budget deficit for 2012 of $10 million to $15 million.

Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson  
 Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson

In addition to talent and energy, Freeman-Wilson has one great advantage as she leads the charge to regenerate Gary's economy: Her city has already done most of the dumb stuff. It poured millions of dollars into a convention center, which is still limping along, little-used and leaking money; poured additional millions into a convention hotel operated by Sheraton that went under a few years after it opened; and spent additional millions on a minor-league baseball stadium that was supposed to spur development but did not. The abandoned Sheraton across the street from City Hall is a reminder of what doesn't work. As Freeman-Wilson says, not with a small amount of sarcasm, "We've certainly tried the bright ideas."

The mayor's plan for economic development is pretty solid, and it's not based on the cookie-cutter approach we see in a lot of cities. Gary is a transportation hub on the tip of Lake Michigan, 25 miles from Chicago. Freeman-Wilson plans to focus on logistics based on Gary's transportation assets: access to several highways, rail lines and especially the Gary airport, which could take the congestion pressure off O'Hare and Midway in Chicago by focusing on air cargo and allowing the Chicago airports to focus on passenger traffic. In addition to being grounded in the city's real strengths, this approach can benefit from the federal government's current policy of greatly expanding exports over the next several years.

Freeman-Wilson says she has a good relationship with Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Chicago's mayor ought to be doing all he can to help her succeed. Metropolitan Chicago has struggled relative to its peers in the last decade. Of the country's top 10 metros, it ranks at or near the bottom on most economic measures. It's tough to succeed with a bleeding sore sitting next to you: Long term, as Gary goes so goes Chicago and the entire Chicago metropolitan area. There's never been a better time to make it work.