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Population Reflects Economic Woes in One US Town

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Kane Farabaugh

The city of Gary, Indiana, was founded in 1906 by the head of the United States Steel Corporation, Elbert H. Gary.  U.S. Steel continues to operate a massive plant along the shores of Lake Michigan, though a dramatic loss of jobs in the steel industry over several decades has brought economic hardship and blight to a once prospering city.  But regional development initiatives are bringing some hope to a town that needs a boost.

In many sections of Gary, Indiana, time has stood still. The remnants of prosperity are now decaying examples of Gary's decline.  

The steel mills made the town, and provided a job directly or indirectly for almost everyone who lived here.

Now, those mills produce more steel than ever before, but with far fewer employees.

"We can make a lot more steel with less people.  It's a high-tech manufacturing operation," explained Jill Ritchie, director of public policy for the United States Steel Corporation.  Their plant in Gary, Indiana, now employs about 6,000 people, down from about 35,000 in the 1960s.

"Those were the days when you were carting things around by hand," Ritchie added.  "We had our own blacksmith operation at the plant.  So you know we've come a long way since those days."

As the steel industry modernized and downsized, the exodus from Gary began.  In 1970, the city's population was just above 175,000.  The latest 2010 census figures show a 20 percent decline in Gary's population in the last decade. Now there are officially about 80,000 people.

That figure has Mayor Rudy Clay concerned.  "We have more than that," said Clay.  "A lot of people didn't fill out those forms so we are appealing that."

If the appeal fails, the city would not be eligible for as much federal funding because of its decreased size.

Gary lost a similar appeal of the 2000 census numbers.  More than a quarter of Gary's population lives in poverty, twice the national average.  Everyone who lives here is looking for a way back to prosperity.

"When you become a one-horse town, you sort of live by the sword and die by the sword.  In this case, steel was our sword," noted Karen Freeman-Wilson, the Democratic nominee in Gary's mayoral race.  Without strong Republican opposition, she will likely become the city's first female mayor in November's election.  She hopes to use the city's location to bring jobs and prosperity back to Gary.

"We are in the midst of four interstate highways," Freeman-Wilson added.  "We are in the midst of three international train lines.  We are also on one of the largest Great Lakes.  We have an airport.  All of those factors can work together to make Gary the transportation Mecca of the Midwest.  It would rival Chicago because Chicago is so congested now."

Leaders in northwest Indiana broke ground in May on a $153 million expansion project at the Gary Chicago International Airport.  Officials hope expanding the runway will attract more freight and passenger airlines that currently use other congested Chicago airports.

There is also a plan to build a large museum honoring Gary's most famous resident, Michael Jackson.  Developers hope the $300 million project will eventually draw hundreds of thousands of tourists to Gary each year.

But those plans remain on the drawing board.  With no groundbreaking date in site, city officials are becoming increasingly pessimistic the project will actually take off.

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