New Gary mayor has plan to overhaul troubled city

December 29, 2011 2:45:36 PM PST
History will be made on New Year's Day in Gary, Indiana, when the city's first female African-American mayor takes office.

ABC7'S Paul Meincke spoke with mayor-elect Karen Freeman-Wilson about her plans.

It has been for years a worsening picture of decay and crime and, arguably, loss of hope. Large portions of Gary have become either urban prairie or buildings beyond repair. The population has dropped by 10,000 in just the last five years.

New mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson's job is to try and fix Gary's problems.

"I'm going to lead the process," Wilson said. "I'm certainly not a magician."

On Sunday, Freeman-Wilson becomes the mayor of the city where she was born and raised. Her resume is stellar: Harvard law, former Indiana attorney general. And her aim, she says, is to surround herself with people who are smarter than she is.

Thursday, in front of the sign that proclaims "A new day," Freeman-Wilson introduced some of her new team, both Gary born, a chief of staff also Harvard educated, and a deputy mayor schooled at the University of Chicago.

Their biggest challenge?

"I say without pause, it's restoring hope, and collective responsibility," said Freeman-Wilson.

"She loves this city, not for what she can get out of it, but for what she can put into it," said Rev. Robert Mitchell.

There are both high expectations and big challenges for the new mayor. Money problems are so severe the main library is closing. Crime is so cancerous that a new chain store is closing in part because of shoplifting.

And blight. Part of Freeman-Wilson's plan is to round up federal money to take down what is beyond repair, but for city owned homes that are salvageable, sell them for a dollar.

"There'll be strict guidelines. People must live in them and be given a certain period to bring them up to code, and then return them to the tax base," said Freeman-Wilson.

Some of what she will try her predecessors were unable to accomplish, but one of the mantras of the new mayor is "There has to be a plan," and there can't be too much communication, whether the plan succeeds or flops.

"Then people will give us the time we need and won't get frustrated things aren't happening overnight," said Freeman-Wilson.

The challenges that Gary and its new mayor faces are quite sobering, as was the case with her predecessors. One of the things that Freeman-Wilson hopes to accomplish is, as she calls it, stopping the brain drain. A lot of bright, talented people grow up in Gary, see no future there, and leave. The new mayor hopes to lure some back and get them to reinvest their talents in their hometown.


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