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Hard Rock gives $3 million to Gary for blight removal, with focus on downtown

Hard Rock Northern Indiana is giving $3 million to Gary to use as matching funds that will allow the city to tap into another $3 million in state funding for downtown blight removal.

Gary Mayor Eddie Melton, Matt Schuffert, president of Hard Rock Northern Indiana, and Sherri Ziller, president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Regional Development Authority announced the donation and matching funds at a Tuesday news conference at Gary City Hall.

Melton and Shuffert also confirmed the city will be working with the casino to come up with a viable proposal for the Lake Count convention and event center. Melton said when he originally authored the legislation as a senator, it was to bring the facility to Gary. He now will work with the casino to show the Hard Rock site remains the best location for the development.

“Gary has a long history of a thriving and robust downtown,” Melton said, adding that like so many Rust Belt cities, it was impacted by industrial decline. Senate Enrolled Act 434, the legislation enabling the creation of a potential convention center in Lake County, also provides for blight removal in the city’s downtown and TDD area. The state allocated $3 million a year in 2024 and 202FIVE in matching funds for the city to use for that purpose.

The legislation provides Gary and Lake County with the economic development tools needed to transform the economic state of the city. Gary, in turn, was charged with finding within its own coffers or through partnerships such as the one with Hard Rock, funds to maximize the state grant.

The money will be used to target blighted buildings downtown in the transportation development district footprint created by the legislation. Melton said the project will target city-owned buildings first to get things rolling. No firm start date has been set.

Melton said the city worked with Ziller and the RDA in 2023 to create a priority list for demolition. His administration already is looking at ways to fund the $3 million match in 202FIVE. He said the city will be looking at developing other corporate partnerships to help.

“It’s clear to everyone the entire city of Gary has a significant population of abandoned buildings that mar the landscape and pose serious threats to public safety,” Melton said. There are currently about 6,000 abandoned buildings within the city that need to be razed. “Demolishing these structures is not only a necessity but a moral imperative.”

A few weeks ago Melton said the city in cooperation with 10 contractors who volunteered their time demolished about 40 homes, which he used as an example of the community coming together in partnership to improve quality of life.

“The revitalization of downtown Gary is not merely about cosmetic enhancements or economic development but fostering a thriving hub that involves the heart and hub if the city,” Melton said.

Melton said Gary is unique in what its TDD has to offer. It will be the only TDD in the state with a national park. Ultimately, the freshman mayor says he envisions a walkable downtown were people want to shop and go out to eat.

“We have to create an environment, an opportunity to give folks a reason to want to go off the expressway,” Melton said.

Moving forward Melton said there will be opportunities to engage the community for feedback and input on what they would like their downtown to look like.

“This contribution really sets up the state to help us move forward,” Melton said.

Schuffert said Hard Rock remains committed to Gary and Northwest Indiana. Those philanthropic efforts will continue despite the large single donation and each partnership opportunity will be evaluated as it is presented.

He said casino officials are confident that by targeting the elimination of blighted properties that currently stand in the way of development, it will help move the effort forward.

Ziller, with the RDA, said the transportation development districts help spur revitalization. Michigan City recently unveiled at $101 million mixed use development within its TDD.

“The TDD is designed to super charge growth and development,” Ziller said. The blight removal project within the Gary TDD footprint will play a vital role in its development.

“Great things are happening in our TDDs,” Ziller said.

Gary Common Council President Tai Adkins said she wanted to confirm Melton had the support of the city council in the Melton Administration’s efforts. She said the council has remained steadfast in advocating for strategic blight removal.

“This project emphasizes the power of collaborations when community stakeholders, the administration come together to serve as a catalyst for the transformation of our urban landscape,” Adkins said.

Melton said his administration is committed to determining if the Genesis Center can be protected and reutilized. They also are looking at tapping into stead READi Grant funding to further the blight removal process. READi grant funding would be able to be used throughout the city instead of in just the TDD footprint, which is bordered approximately by 4th Street and 14th Street to the north and south and Emerson High School and Horace Mann to the east and west.

“Our vision is to make the downtown a livable walkable destination.” Melton said.

cnapoleon@chicagotribune.com