How Gary, Ind., Hopes To Soften Its Steely Image

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Gary, Ind., Mayor Rudy Clay (right) describes the the proposed $300 million Michael Jackson museum and performing arts center this summer as Joe Jackson, father of the late Michael Jackson, looks on. i

Gary, Ind., Mayor Rudy Clay describes the proposed $300 million Michael Jackson museum and performing arts center this summer. The city hopes honoring the pop star will help attract new business to the area. John Smierciak/AP hide caption

itoggle caption John Smierciak/AP
Gary, Ind., Mayor Rudy Clay (right) describes the the proposed $300 million Michael Jackson museum and performing arts center this summer as Joe Jackson, father of the late Michael Jackson, looks on.

Gary, Ind., Mayor Rudy Clay describes the proposed $300 million Michael Jackson museum and performing arts center this summer. The city hopes honoring the pop star will help attract new business to the area.

John Smierciak/AP

Gary, Ind., is a gritty Midwest city that's wedded to the steel industry.

But Gary is also trying to embrace other industries — akin to the transformation Pittsburgh, a former steel town, has gone through.

Critics say attracting new industries such as education and medicine, as Pittsburgh has done, may be difficult for Gary, because there's not much of a base to build on.

Steel Jobs

Jim Robinson, the director of the district office in Gary for the United Steelworkers of America, says the city's dependence on steel isn't likely to change anytime soon. "Gary's future is obviously not ever going to be decoupled from U.S. Steel, simply because it's a major part of the city and a major part of the city's tax base," Robinson says.

Robinson started his career in steel more than 40 years ago. Back then, finding a job at a local steel mill was easy as pie. "[It] used to be you could walk up to the employment office and they try and talk you into starting in the afternoon," he says. "Certainly not true today."

Robinson should know. He has seen jobs at U.S. Steel's Gary Works dwindle from 50,000 in the 1960s to a little more than 6,000 today.

Robinson says the huge mill still produces 7 million tons of raw steel each year, but with far fewer workers.

Attracting New Industries

There are some signs that Gary is trying to follow Pittsburgh's lead.

A Chicago firm wants to build a $100 million data storage facility on an empty lot. Ben Clement, whose job is to attract new development to Gary, helped lure the company. "We definitely want to continue to embrace our industrial past," Clement says. "However, from a business perspective, we have to recognize that attracting or luring clean industries and high technology is going to be important for Gary's growth and our future."

Financial management consultant Dean Kaplan, a managing director for Public Financial Management, is working with the city of Gary on its budget shortfall.

Kaplan says while Gary has assets to exploit, it needs to shift its thinking.

"You're talking about making a major sea change in how places are perceived and really leveraging their assets in a way that may not have been done in a long time," he says.

Michael Jackson's Gary Connection

Rudy Clay, the mayor of Gary, says the city is committed to diversifying its economic base and is trying to expand its underused airport.

Clay says the city also wants to expand Indiana University Northwest — its own local college — and increase tourism.

Read NPR's Series On Elkhart, Ind.

One way to do that is to honor its most famous former resident — Michael Jackson. The world famous pop star was born in Gary in 1958 and lived there until he was 10 years old.

But Clay still sees U.S. Steel as this city's anchor, and he's not too worried it will pull up anytime soon. "Nah, they’re not going anywhere," he says. "I think we're going to continue to be good cooperative partners with U.S. Steel. They will be here."

Of course, steelworkers in Pittsburgh said the same thing three decades ago. But Gary linked its future to U.S. Steel well before that: When the city was founded in 1906, it named itself after the company's first chairman, Elbert H. Gary.

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