By Erick Johnson (Chicago Crusader/NNPA Member)
It could the greatest comeback in the history of any American city.
Gary, Indiana, a predominately Black city, that has struggled with business closures, soaring unemployment, poverty, foreclosures and depressed property values for decades, could be seeing a dramatic turnaround so stunning that it would be an urban miracle. All it would take is for one hungry, high-profile corporation seeking to expand with few limitations and an economically-starved city coming together to hammer out a business deal that would transform both entities forever.
Gary is willing, but does Amazon Inc., one of the largest retailers in the world, believe that the underdog city can truly be the “Magic City” once again?
Amazon Inc., a Seattle-based, mult-billion dollar retailer, set off a bidding war on September 7 with plans to build “HQ2,” a $5 billion facility that would be so big, that it would employ 50,000 employees, with many positions paying, on average, $100,000 annually.
The employee estimate is 65 percent of Gary’s population of 76,424. It could wipe out the city’s high unemployment and trigger an unprecedented economic boom in Gary’s business and housing industries. With huge tax breaks and Gary’s vacant swaths of real estate, international airport and close proximity to Chicago and major highways, the opportunities for Amazon to grow and increase could be endless.
However, big cities are jumping at the prospect of landing Amazon, too. Even though, Gary is the smallest and perhaps least competitive of them all, the city may offer Amazon a tremendous opportunity to earn greater respect and name-recognition for turning around an underdog that has suffered since it was deserted by Whites when the city elected its first Black mayor, Richard Gordon Hatcher, in 1968.
They are big dreams that could turn around Gary in ways the city’s last four mayors have been unable to do. And, the move could address Indiana’s racial and class divide that left Gary’s predominantly Black residents lagging behind other residents in the state.
Gary’s current mayor, Karen Freeman-Wilson, a two-time Harvard graduate, is used to fighting uphill battles as the city’s leaders. She has pulled out all stops to get Amazon’s attention.
On September 17, Freeman-Wilson turned heads after taking out a small advertisement in The New York Times on the second page of the business section. The ad, which was laid out in the form of a 579-word letter, is written from the perspective of a “person” or the collective voice of Gary, Indiana. While the letter details Gary’s “tough times,” it also highlights Gary’s strengths.
The letter urges Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, to consider the city’s strengths, including the Gary/Chicago International Airport, new businesses and the port authority. Gary’s proximity to two major highways, the I-90 and the I-94, are also cited as strengths; about 20 percent of the city’s residential property and half of its commercial property are vacant.
“And land? Jeff, I have all the land you need,” the letter reads.
The ad also includes Freeman-Wilson’s email address and cellphone number. According to one news report, the city paid about $9,500 for the advertisement and plans to submit a formal bid to Amazon by October 19.
“We believe that the natural assets of Gary and (northwest Indiana), coupled with the positive Indiana business climate and the amenities of the Chicagoland market, make us competitive,” Freeman-Wilson said in a recent email.
Lately, Gary has been on a roll in luring businesses to the city. In July, the city snagged deals with two Illinois companies, Alliance Steel Corp. and HMD Trucking. Both companies plan to build new headquarters in the city that will generate a combined total of 600 jobs.
Luring Amazon’s HQ2 facility may be Gary’s toughest battle to date.
As of September 29, eight major cities, including New York, Chicago, Dallas, San Diego, Cleveland, Louisville, St. Louis, and Detroit reportedly will submit bids for Amazon’s new facility. Several cities in Indiana’s Boone County are preparing their bids, but all eyes are on Indianapolis, where Mayor Joe Hogsett is making the case for the retailer to move to his city.
“Indianapolis continues to receive national attention as a rising tech hub, helping to drive innovation and growth for local and global businesses,” said Hogsett’s spokeswoman, Taylor Schaffer. “That’s why we are very excited to engage with state leadership and Amazon to encourage the growth of their current successful presence in our city.”
Cities are pulling out all the stops for Amazon; so far, Indiana’s governor has declined to publicly support Gary’s bid.
In Illinois, Governor Bruce Rauner and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel have publicly put their differences aside to put together a “single comprehensive proposal” for the Amazon HQ2 headquarters. Rauner and Emanuel’s deputy mayors and several city and state officials visited Amazon’s main headquarters in Seattle recently to survey the company’s massive 8.1 million square foot facility.
While Rauner backs Chicago’s bid for Amazon’s new headquarters, Holcomb isn’t saying whether he support Gary’s bid. Holcomb said he wants Indiana to get the headquarters, but he hasn’t specified what city, although there is speculation that he wants Indianapolis to get the facility.
In a statement, Holcomb said, “Indiana has a tremendous opportunity to be seriously considered in this process. We are doing what Amazon has asked us to do: coordinating efforts with all interested regions of the state to put our best bid forward. I’ve called on the Indiana Economic Development Corporation to lead this collaborative effort that will culminate with a bid submission that includes local and state incentives as well as recommended best sites.”
In Indiana, there has always been concern that state Republican lawmakers have allowed Gary and its economy to deteriorate without offering much help. Many residents still remember when state officials did very little to slow White flight in the city after Indiana’s General Assembly passed legislation exempting only Lake County from the state’s “buffer zone” law, which prohibited incorporation in areas within three miles of Gary and larger cities. Without the buffer zones, White residents helped Merrillville become an official city in 1971, after years of unsuccessful attempts.
Freeman-Wilson acknowledges that her bid is “far-fetched” and may not be as good as Chicago’s offer. As part of its requirements, Amazon said it prefers to be near a metropolitan area with more than a million people. The company is also looking for a friendly business environment.
Amazon officials said the company would also consider urban or suburban locations with the potential to attract and retain strong technical talent, which many Gary residents don’t have, although there is potential for training. However, Chicago’s large technical workforce may commute to an Amazon headquarters in Gary, but this won’t benefit the housing or job market in Steel Town.
Founded in 1994, Amazon is one of the world’s largest Internet companies. Amazon is ranked No. 12 on the Fortune 500 list and No. 3 on the Forbes list of “The World’s Most Innovative Companies.” Amazon generated over $135 billion in revenue (as of May 2017) from selling everything from electronics to home furnishings to men’s and women’s apparel online.