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.
Mayor: 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.

Al: Would you tell my readers what an integrated mill is?

Mayor: 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?
Mayor: 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 1996.

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?
Mayor: 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 the lake.
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 assets.

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 in America.

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.

Al: 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?

Mayor: 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?
Mayor: 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 African-American community?
Mayor: 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 Indiana?
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?
Mayor: 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.