Karen Freeman-Wilson has a Passion for Gary
Some cities need to be brought back from the brink. The rust belt has been hit hard by the decline of American manufacturing. Residents have fled, communities have given way to blight, and crime rates have risen in their stead. The DMOs who run for office in these cities are running to take on the work of rebuilding their communities. It's the love of their cities that compels individuals to take on such a Herculean task. This month we recognize the efforts of one such mayor, who is running for a second term moving mountains in the Midwest. Meet Karen Freeman-Wilson, Mayor of Gary and our DMO of the Month for July. A graduate of Harvard Law, Freeman-Wilson's loyalty and passion for her city brought her home to help realize Gary's true potential.
Gary's prominence in the early 20th century came in part from its ideal location as a manufacturing and transportation center. Mayor Freeman-Wilson incorporates renewed attention to transit and infrastructure as part of her plans for revitalization. A $100 million PPP will redevelop Gary's airport over a 40 year period, with a $25 million influx jump-starting renovations over the first three years of the program. This partnership has already expanded the runway, and is working to transform the airport into a new hub for travel and cargo. TIGER grants are another way Freeman-Wilson is maximizing her city's potential for growth, and she is pursuing transportation funds to improve commuter rail and create a new access road for the lakefront industrial corridor. The city also joined forces with Indiana University on a feasibility study to establish the first trauma center in northwest Indiana. Thanks to their efforts, Gary's Methodist Hospital is now an "in process" level III trauma center, saving lives that would be lost transporting the wounded to Chicago or South Bend. Connecting Gary to services and economic opportunities through improved infrastructure is one of Freeman-Wilson's top priorities.
In addition to bringing back industry and infrastructure, for Gary to survive Freeman-Wilson must give residents a new stake in their communities. The Dollar Home Project sells city-owned homes for just $1, provided the purchasers demonstrate a commitment to live in the neighborhood and the means to conduct renovations. This is an important symbol of the mayor's desire to make housing more affordable. Gary is also combating blight through a $6.6 million grant from the US Treasury's Hardest Hit Fund, which will be used to tear down vacant and abandoned properties. A hallmark of Mayor Freeman-Wilson's governing style is her open door policy. Any resident of Gary is free to visit her office for a 15 minute idea pitch. In return, she asks that they commit to participating in a community building activity. In Gary, everyone is expected to lend a hand.
Higher crime rates have beset Gary in the wake of its economic decline, and Gary's mayor knows that it will take more than a "tough on crime" mindset to heal her city. Freeman-Wilson is one of the nation's leading proponents of drug courts. During her tenure as a judge, she was troubled by seeing the same individuals come into her court having repeatedly made the same mistakes with drugs. In response she founded Gary's Second Chance Program, which provides an intense 1-2 year treatment mandate in lieu of jail time. This intensely supervised program has a far lower recidivism rate than other paths through the legal system, and provides accountability and supervision for an offender to get their life back on track.
Cities are making a comeback in America. The post-WWII economic boom led to a period of prosperity and growth that has petered out over time. Lost jobs, a struggling housing market, and ensuing spikes in crime have taken their toll. But Gary is rebuilding the infrastructure to make it great again, replacing blight with affordable housing, and addressing the causes of criminal activity instead of only dealing with the aftermath. Leading this comeback are Democratic Municipal Officials like Karen Freeman-Wilson. She has changed the perception of Gary from a town that's past its prime to a town retaking a position of prominence. Our DMO of the Month for July is showing the country how you reclaim a city from the status quo.
Karen Freeman-Wilson began her public career as a judge in Gary City Court. From there she was appointed to serve as Attorney General of Indiana. Freeman-Wilson is formerly the CEO of The National Association of Drug Court Professionals and past Executive Director of The National Drug Court Institute. She chairs the National League of Cities' Public Safety and Crime Prevention Committee.