Struggling U.S. cities hope small projects yield big results

Reuters

By Mary Wisniewski

GARY, Ind., Nov 9 (Reuters) - Struggling U.S. Rust Beltcities for years have tried to counter the loss of manufacturingjobs with big, expensive projects like casinos and stadiums.

For cities such as Gary, Indiana; Flint, Michigan; andYoungstown, Ohio, these projects brought hope and headlines.Some delivered new revenue, but others brought new costs andmixed results.

Gary's underused Genesis Convention Center, for example,cost the city $3.6 million in repairs and operations in the pastyear alone.

Now, Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson and civic leaders ofsome other blighted cities are going small with strategic,narrowly focused ideas such as selling vacant homes for $1,demolishing derelict buildings and neighborhood clean-up projects that produce immediate results.

"It's a movement away from this singular, mega-project,"said Toni Griffin, an architect and urban planner at CityUniversity of New York. "Where cities are moving to is a largermore strategic framework."

Gary, a struggling city 30 miles south of Chicago along theshores of Lake Michigan, is a prime example of the trend.

Known as the "Magic City" in the roaring 1920s for itsspectacular growth, Gary is still home to U.S. Steel's largestplant, but the number of mill jobs has shrunk to 5,000 from30,000 in the 1970s. Gary's population in 1960 was more than178,000, but it disintegrated to just 79,000 by 2012.

Some one-third of its residents live in poverty and the homeand business vacancy rate is about 35 percent. Gary recorded 43murders in 2012 - three times as many per capita as nearbyChicago.

S. Paul O'Hara, a Xavier University professor who wrote ahistory of Gary, said Gary's problems may seem overwhelming, buta few small steps could build a foundation for better days.

Attempts have been made to revive Gary, including casinosand a minor-league baseball stadium.

Similar projects were tried in other cities - a trend knownas the "Bilbao" effect after the Guggenheim Museum that revivedBilbao, Spain, said Terry Schwarz, director at Cleveland UrbanDesign Collaborative in Ohio.

SMALL STEPS TO REVIVAL

Flint provides an infamous example of how a big project canbackfire. AutoWorld, an $80 million theme park opened in 1984,closed six months later due to low attendance. It was laterdemolished and the land acquired by the University ofMichigan-Flint.

These days, Flint is having more success with the GeneseeCounty Land Bank, which allows neighbors to buy adjoining lotscheaply, so they can expand their gardens. The Bank recentlyreceived $20.1 million in federal money for 1,661 buildingdemolitions, according to the city.

The Bank also has helped revive the downtown, turningboarded-up buildings into apartments and restaurants, said ChrisWaters, associate provost at the University of Michigan-Flint.

"There's actually night life in Flint," Waters said. "Itstill amazes me."

In Youngstown, the Mahoning County Land Bank - an entitythat manages and develops tax-foreclosed properties - helps movevacant buildings back onto tax rolls.

The city also has increased penalties for neglectful owners.One tactic is a $10,000 bond paid by any entity foreclosing on abuilding. The city can use the money for repairs if the propertyis neglected.

"We're starting to see the visual impact," Maureen O'Neil,Youngstown's chief code official, said. "Some of our corridorslook a lot better."

BUILDING A FUTURE

Like Gary, Youngstown and Flint were heavily dependent onsingle industries and were devastated economically when tens ofthousands of manufacturing jobs disappeared between the 1960sand 1980s. Youngstown lost jobs in steel, Flint in the autoindustry.

Freeman-Wilson, elected last year as Gary's first femalemayor, sees its potential as a transportation hub. It lies inthe center of the country, alongside Lake Michigan and 30minutes from Chicago, with rail and highway connections. Tobuild on its transportation potential, she said a bigger plan isto expand the airport's runway by September 2014.

The mayor sees a tourism potential because the city was thehometown of pop star Michael Jackson. Gary's real estate is alsoa bargain - the Miller Beach neighborhood attracts Chicagoanswho want lake views at lower costs.

One wall of the mayor's office is covered with ugly picturesincluding a hollowed-out train station and a crumbling framehouse - all eyesores Freeman-Wilson wants revived or demolished.

"Some are gone, some are on their way out - that historicrail station we should really develop," she said, tapping eachpicture in turn. She also has a plan for cleaning up the cityblock by block and is counting on volunteers to start scrubbing.

Freeman-Wilson, a Harvard-educated Gary native, says shesees why past mayors turned to big projects. "When you see aconvention center, you regain hope.

"I understand that, but I don't want to do that to theexclusion of smaller things."

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