Melton shares progress on redevelopment, public safety in State of the City address

Gary Mayor Eddie Melton outlined his vision and progress to revitalize the city’s downtown, spur redevelopment and improve public safety and infrastructure within the first 100 days of his administration.

“This city has seen some tough times, but it’s the hope, the grit and the determination that I see in the people that inspires me to fight like I do every single day,” Melton said. “I truly believe we can and we will restore the heart and soul of this city.”

The First 100 Days State of the City address was held Tuesday at the West Side Leadership Academy auditorium, which was packed with residents, students, elected officials, like Gary State Representatives Vernon Smith and Ragen Hatcher and and music artists Ja Rule and Grammy Award winner Deniece Williams.

Stretching across 52 square miles, Gary is a top steel producer and has an international airport, deep water seaport and three rail lines, Melton said. The city lies at the southern tip of Lake Michigan and four major highways intersect through it, he said.

The city’s once vibrant downtown is “on the cusp” of being revitalized, Melton said, to once again be the commercial epicenter of Northwest Indiana. Melton said his administration’s vision is to have a liveable and walkable downtown. In 2023, then-State Senator Melton authored Senate Enrolled Act 434, which established a blighted property demolition fund to assist in the revitalization of the Gary Metro Center at 4th and Broadway and encourage state investment in a potential Lake County convention center.

Recently, the Regional Development Authority issued a Request for Qualifications, asking for proposals from firms or teams qualified to help the RDA with the demolition project in Gary’s transit development district (TDD), which covers 315.5 acres along Broadway and Fifth Avenue. The demolition would clear the way for new development in the TDD.

“Our city is valuable and we’re worthy. It’s time we feel like it, and it’s time we act like it,” Melton said.

Shortly after being elected mayor, Melton said he attended Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative, a program for new mayors. There, Melton said he began crafting his 100-day plan, which started with hiring his administrative team.

When he returned, Melton said he hired Gary Police Chief Derrick Cannon and Gary Fire Chief Larry Tillman. Tillman has sworn in 15 new recruits to the fire academy and established a 20-member dive team who will respond to emergency situations along the beachfront in Gary.

Recently, four recruits graduated from the police academy, Melton said. Under Cannon’s leadership, the police department has increased its proactive patrol by 25%, Melton said, which has led to a 59% decrease in homicides compared to last year.

But, Melton said his administration realizes “we can’t arrest our way to a safer Gary.” Melton said the city has established group violence intervention, an evidence-based, nationally recognized model to lowering violent crime.

Melton said he removed the position of deputy mayor and created the position of Chief Operating Officer, who will work toward eliminating barriers and work more efficiently for residents.

The Gary Health Department is led by Commissioner Dr. Janet Seabrook, Melton said. The department was recently awarded $800,000 from the state to address infant and maternal mortality rates, he said. The funds will go toward providing free prenatal care and education on infant safe sleep and shaken baby syndrome, Melton said.

The health department has also begun working toward establishing a mobile mental health crisis response unit, Melton said. In early 2023, the City Council allocated $1.5 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds to create the team which has mental health professionals assisting police and responding to non-violent mental health crises in the city.

Melton’s administration also hired a city engineer, who has already reviewed each street light in the city. The study found that out of more than 2,000 street lights, 913 fixtures aren’t working, 110 street light poles are knocked down and 115 fixtures are on during the day, he said.

Melton said he will work with the city council to use $3.3 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to address the street light issue. The city also received $1.4 million in matching funds from the Indiana Department of Transportation for street paving, he said.

The city has a balanced budget, Melton said. His administration has focused on reducing “wasteful spending,” Melton said.

Since January, the city has discontinued phone services to vacant buildings and canceled the cellphone lines of former employees, which saved the city about $500,000 in fees. Currently, the city is spending 5.5% less than it did this time last year, he said.

To help bolster the budget, Melton said the city received $75,000 to hire a full-time grant writer, who will focus on obtaining state and federal funding.

Melton said his administration is working toward eliminating illegal dumping — a consistent issue in the city. As people come to Gary to rehabilitate old houses, Melton said they do the work without a permit and take the items from inside the house and dump the items in an open lot or behind an abandoned building.

The city has started an anti-dumping fund and campaign, Melton said. The city has received $500,000 from the state to address illegal dumping, he said, and the funds will go toward cleaning up the sites and installing fences and cameras. Anyone caught illegally dumping will be fined, he said.

On weekends, Melton said city officials and residents have come together to clean up sections of the city.

“People are starting to tell us that they can see and feel the difference every single day,” Melton said.

Toward economic development, Melton said his administration demolished 35 blighted structures in the Aetna neighborhood. It used the Indiana unsafe building law to identify 85 buildings in Aetna that need to be updated, he said, and the majority of the owners have been contacted and have 90 days to make improvements.

“We want to make an example and replicate that work throughout the city,” Melton said.

The city also awarded a fellow through the International Economic Development Council who will help the administration build a plan to attract investors into the city, Melton said. The city has also partnered with the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture to design and develop new standards that honor the city’s architectural heritage, he said.

The city administration plans to apply for the state’s READI 2.0 program to fund the demolition of blighted buildings and development throughout the city, Melton said. The administration also established a small business advisory council to encourage more small businesses to open in the city, he said.

The Melton administration has cleaned up and secured the Genesis Convention Center, he said. Right now, city officials are coming up with plans on how to move forward with the building, he said.

“We need time to figure out what’s the best use of our resources to figure out how we address that facility,” Melton said.

In the future, Melton said he’d like to work with businesses, state and local officials to bring a Lake County Convention Center in Gary, which would bring tourism and hospitality dollars to the city.

“There’s much more to come. We hope for a greater Gary. We can’t fully see it yet, but we’re working on it with faith and focus,” Melton said.

Gary Council President Tai Adkins, D-4th, said the council looks forward to working with Melton on moving the city forward.

“Let us as a community reflect and share responsibility in this commitment to build a stronger, more vibrant community,” Adkins said.