Having lived just outside of Gary,
IN for much of my adult life, I knew the city well.
However, it became apparent that many who didn't live in the
"region" didn't know much about the city that just hosted the Miss USA
beauty contest. On the eve of the
final competition, I sat down with the Mayor of Gary, Scott King, to talk with
him about the city and its two-term mayor. In this interview, you will discover a city that is
redefining itself as we begin a new millennium.
Gary spanned much of the 20th century and is in the process of
rebirth as it nears its centennial year. You
will discover the person who is leading Gary.
Al: For the benefit of my Internet readers, I would like you to give them a
brief history of your city.
Gary is a city of approximately 110,000.
The city began in 1906 essentially by US Steel.
At the turn of the century, the board of USS, headed by Albert Gary
(hence the name of the city) needed a midwestern facility and settled on this
site. They were looking between
here and Waukegan, IL. It was the
typical company town. They built on
the lakefront, which was key for the transport of iron ore from the northern
Great Lakes. There they began
laying out the mill. It was a
state-of-the-art facility, and it is still the largest integrated mill in the US
if not the world.
Would you tell my readers what an integrated mill is?
An integrated mill is one in which all aspects of steel production are
done at one location. Raw materials come in at one end and the finished steel comes
out the other end. They laid it out
to occupy seven of the eleven miles of the northern boundary of Gary, which is
the southern shore of Lake Michigan. Many
workers were imported to build it. As
the city grew, what had been previously small towns became neighborhoods within
the city. For example, Miller,
which was Miller Station, and Tolleston, which had been a German-American
farming community and a stagecoach stop are all now a part of Gary.
The population of Gary probably
peaked in the 1950s with about 175,000 residents.
In the twentieth century, Gary was really a leader in the industrial
revolution not only the steel process but also with the social services.
For example, it's public education system, founded by William Wirt,
became a model for the country. New
York City adopted the Gary model for public education.
However, it's long been singularly focused on the steel mill.
The psychological vestiges of that continue even today.
Gary is still seen a mill town. But,
at it's height, the downtown was the retail place for all of Northwest
Indiana. Entertainment-wise, the big acts of the time came through
Gary. Beginning in the 1960s,
Gary's downturn began.
Al: What were some of those things that adversely affected Gary?
A number of things combined to cause this.
America changed greatly as people moved into suburbia leaving the
downtown to fend for itself. One of
the biggest contributing factors was the advent of Interstate highway systems,
which also allowed Americans to work in the city by living further and further
away from the downtown. They found
it cheaper to buy land in the rural communities.
As that continued, the retail stores like Sears and Wards followed that
residential migration out of the cities. They
are going to go where the market was. Again,
this was replicated in cities throughout the United States.
Gary's situation had the
additional factor of the election of an African-American mayor.
I think that was very poorly handled.
There was a great deal of panic peddling resulting in a great deal of
white flight from the city to the suburbs.
That exodus continued well into the 70s.
In addition to all this, Gary was one of many cities in America's
rustbelt. A number of those other communities like Cleveland,
Pittsburgh, and Chicago figured out how to become competitive with suburbs.
Gary unfortunately didn't figure that out.
Gary never did make effective efforts to diversify its economic base.
It continued to view the steel mill as always going to be there.
Generations grew up in this city and worked in the mill that had been
good to them. In the 70s, there was
a tremendous downturn in the steel industry.
They faced a crisis not unlike the automobile industry did at the same
time. The automobile industry made
a wiser and more rapid competitive transition.
The steel industry took much longer.
It wasn't until the 1980s that they really began modernization,
automation, and computerization. When the mills finally modernized, the changes meant that the
mills didn't need as many employees or land as they once did.
During all this time, the mill itself resisted diversification because it
didn't want competition for the labor pool.
One reason why this city presents unique challenges has been the failure
to effectively diversify its economic base.
That is one of the challenges that I have faced since taking office in
In addition to all these problems,
when I took office, the crime situation was really out of hand along with city
finances. They were in a state of
chaos. At one point, the
controllers of the previous administrations were calling banks on a daily basis
to see what the balances were in the various city accounts.
It was a nightmare.
Al: How have casinos affected the finances?
In the mid 1990s, casinos became a reality for us in Gary.
Casinos have been very successful since they opened in 1996, which was
about halfway through my first year in office.
They have created jobs and provided some measure of diversification.
However, one of the principle benefits is that it has reconnected the
city with its lakefront. They
sparked development interest in recycling industrial land into all sorts of
development. Waterfront development
is a real interesting phenomenon internationally.
The bottom line is that water sells.
For example, San Antonio, Texas, has an attractive and a very successful
waterfront area that they call their River Walk. Having seen it, the river is almost a misnomer. It looks like
an open culvert of brackish water, and yet it is just a remarkable success
story. We are just in the beginning
phases of a huge development of about 200-acres immediately east of our casino.
I've spoken with people lived in
Chicago all their lives. They may have a summer place in Michigan and drive through
Gary several times a year for years and never knew that Gary was on the lake.
One of our challenges, as we reclaim this land and develop it, is to make
people aware of this wonderful asset. Gary
not only borders the National Dunes Lakeshore but portions of that are in Gary.
There is a national park here. These
are some of the things that we are doing in development.
Al: Regarding development, could you explain the situation with Gary and its
bid to become Chicago's third airport? Why
doesn't Gary become that needed additional airport rather than downstate
Peotone? You can see Chicago from
Mayor: Gary's situation is a
little different from many communities. I
was just at a meeting of mayors this last week in Washington with Secretary
Manetta of Transportation. Airports
are fundamentally a local and a federal issue.
Most cases, the states are not a player in it.
What we have to do is to get the local folks and the federal people
together to present a unified front to the industry.
Before we start new construction of airports, we should utilize existing
Gary's airport is
twenty-fives-miles from Chicago, and we aren't fully utilized.
Before we start talking about plowing up cornfields even more distant
than Peotone. Look at what's
right here. If they started
tomorrow the estimates of the times that range from the low of twelve years to a
high of twenty-five years before a plane could land.
In addition to all the environmental rules, we will have to go through in
addition to building the airport, you have to build the transportation means to
get to and from the airport-the highway and rail systems.
You have to build the infrastructure-utilities, etc. needed to get out
there. Yet, we sit here right next
to Chicago, and Rockford is fifty-miles the west.
We have to coordinate these existing assets.
The airlines don't want a new airport because they have to pay the
biggest chunk for it. However, they
want their cake and want to eat it to. I
think what has to happen is that we have to sit down with the airlines and say,
"Guess what? You airlines are going to move some of your assets to these other
surrounding airports in each of these markets"-this is true for many markets
There are a number of ways that
you can do it. Obviously, you can
make greater division between the cargo and the passenger.
What I have found interesting is that every time you fly, if you get on a
plane in Green Bay, WI, to O'Hare it's a full flight.
When that plane lands a percentage of those passengers are going to get a
cab and go to downtown Chicago to conduct business.
The remaining ones are going to go somewhere else in the terminal and get
on a plane to go to Los Angeles, New York, or wherever.
The airlines know who's going to do where.
It's in their computers. With
that data, they could use that data to have those going downtown Chicago take a
cab from Gary just as easily as from O'Hare.
For those making connecting flights, where they make their connections
doesn't make any difference. You
are freeing up space at O'Hare, and you are able in a cost effective way to
solve the riddle of airport congestion. All
this could be done without the enormous cost and time of building a new airport.
Your marshaling and your coordinating the use of existing assets.
This is being done already in Cleveland with the Akron airport,
Philadelphia with Atlantic City airport, and Buffalo with Rochester airport. I think that this is a solution.
Mayor, Gary has a wonderful opportunity to showcase the city with the
Miss USA contest this weekend. How
did you get them to pick Gary?
Trump owns half of Miss Universe and Miss USA is a part of that.
He had mentioned in discussions that we should bid on hosting the
contest. I recognized it as a
marketing opportunity for the city.
Al: What were the other cities in the contest to host the beauty contest?
Branson, Missouri and Shreveport, LA, among several others were in the
competition. During my in my first
year in office, I tried to get funds budgeted from the council for hiring an
advertising firm to do our media. The
free press has victimized Gary with stories focused on negative issues.
It never seemed to be balanced. You
can complain all you want about the bad press, but it doesn't do any good.
The only counter to this is to get your own press.
Then you can get the story out. So,
I wanted to get a top ad firm for the city, but I wasn't successful.
My first term I had the majority of the council with me, they agreed with
anything I did. I had to bob and
weave and luckily the voters voted for me in the last election.
Miss USA helps us to market the city of Gary. It is still a challenge to deal with the press.
What I have seen so far, I think it is worth it.
Gary has gotten a lot of positive national press.
It has already paid for itself, no matter what the bottom line is.
Al: I know it, but my readers don't know it, you are married to an African
American. How was it?
How did a white, middle-aged man can be mayor of an overwhelmingly
According to the last census, Gary's population is 85%
African-American. There is myth
perpetuated at a national level about the "black vote."
African-American voters are the same as any other voter.
They have issues. If you are
running for national office, they have an expectation that you will address some
of their issues: economics, quality of life, education, etc.
This is true at the state level also.
However, at the local level, you have to talk about more local needs:
garbage pick-up, the police, and whether city hall is being run correctly, and
the schools are safe places where education can happen.
I'm white, but I was elected because the voters trusted me.
I said that I had a plan. Instead
of crying in our beer, I presented some ways of dealing with what needed to be
fixed. For example, there was a
problem with public safety. We
needed to do several things: we needed more police, we needed to pay them
better, we needed to equip them better, and we needed better coordination with
other existing resources. What
is true about public safety was true with garbage and finance.
Therefore, the point is that people are people.
African-Americans are no less desirous of a safe and wholesome
environment than anybody else is. And,
I think that is missing in the past and I had some ideas to solve the problem.
Al: You've been mayor two terms. Do
you want to announce today that you are going to run for US Senator from
Mayor: I have been approached for different offices.
The truth is that I'm not that enamored with politics.
I suspect that I would be pretty bored with almost any other job. I like the role as the mayor.
On one hand, you get involved in policy discussions, and you periodically
sitting with people who are pretending to listen to you at top levels.
But, you are also down there with people who call you to tell you,
"There's a snake in my basement." I
also like seeing things work that you have spent a lot of time putting together.
It is rewarding to see it work. That
is very gratifying, I suspect I would be pretty bored being in congress.
I don't think that I have the instincts to be a legislator.
The executive branch is of greater interest to me.
Being a mayor is kind of like being in the trenches.
I like that.
Al: Could you tell my readers something about you and your family?
Mayor: I was born in Chicago in 1951. I
attended Lutheran grade school and high school.
I went to Concordia College which is now a university.
Graduated in 1973 and went on to Valparaiso Law School and graduated in
'76. By '78, I was deputy
prosecutor in Lake County. In
'83, I became an assistant United States Attorney.
Late 1984, I went into private practice and that is what I was doing when
I was elected. My wife and I have
celebrated fifteen years of marriage and we have three children: one fifteen,
fourteen, and a twelve year old.
Al: Sometime, when you kick the
bucket, someone will write an epitaph on you tombstone, what would you want him
or her to write about you?
Mayor: The epitaph that I would love to have has already been taken.
There is an old cemetery in Key West, Fl that has a rich tradition as
sort of a zany place. My favorite
epitaph is on a tombstone there, and I think that it is from the late 1800s.
It merely says, "I told you I was sick".
Seriously, I just want to be remembered as one that did his best.
There was a point in my legal practice when I handled some very difficult
cases like death penalty cases. There
was a point early in that career where I was almost killing myself emotionally.
When you would lose a case and the person was facing a lot of time or
even the death penalty, I was losing a lot of sleep.
I finally came to the realization this person hired me to do my very best
to be effective. My acid test was
win, lose, or draw, I had to be comfortable within myself.
Did I do my best? Frankly,
it was a huge moment in my life when I got to the point of letting go.
I got professional; it didn't mean that I didn't have emotions.
However, I wasn't hired to be compassionate.
I was hired to do the job.
Al: What advice could you offer the
next generation: your kids and the kids of my readers so that they wouldn't
have to reinvent the wheel?
Be responsible for your own actions. Obviously, as a father, you try to
teach a whole bunch of stuff. But,
being responsible is missing in our society.
If you take on responsibility and do the best you can, that actually
reduces a lot of stress in life. There
are people that have commented that being mayor of Gary must be so hard and
stressful. It's not beer and skittles but I have really felt stress as
a trial lawyer. Actually, I
was talking to a former judge, and he agreed.
In my job now, I have more control over what happens. I make the decisions and hope it is the right one, but if it
is the wrong one, it is solely your responsibility. As a trial lawyer, you do your absolute best, but the
decision is always somebody else's. It's not yours. It's the judge or jury. If my foot is going to be
shot, at least the gun is in my hand. You are responsible. I just had this
discussion with my son and two daughters. My
son missed his school bus the other day. There
he stood like it was some act of revenge of the gods that he missed the bus.
We need to teach our children responsibility.
One of my observations is that our generation is probably the poorest
group of parents that have come down the pike in a long time.
We spoil our kids because our parents were children of the depression.
In terms of character building, the depression was bitter, but it was
also sweet. There was an unbelievable unity of the family. Our parents didn't want us to lack anything.
As a result, they spoiled us. We were to focus on economic success. That
is why I think that you have two parents working.
They can make the case that they are trying to do the best for their
kids, but you know what, having a $50,000 income as opposed to $25,000 might not
really benefit the kids in the final analysis.
Al: This has been a very
informative interview. You are very
insightful as both mayor and a father. Thank
you for your time.
Mayor: Thank you.