Gary Mayor Jerome Prince struck an optimistic tone at his final State of the City address, given on Thursday afternoon at the Marquette Park Pavilion.
The event came as Prince prepares to leave office in less than four months. He was unseated in the city’s May Democratic primary election by State Sen. Eddie Melton, D-Gary, who is expected to win a decisive victory in the November general election and take office in January.
“As I stand here today, I am filled with a mix of emotions,” Prince told a crowd of city employees, constituents and reporters. “Pride swells within me for the job I have done, often under adverse circumstances. Yet there is also a tinge of sadness, as there is still much left unfinished that I must pass on to my successor.”
Prince was elected to the office in 2019, winning 48% of the vote amid an eight-candidate Democratic primary field and beating incumbent Mayor Karen Freeman Wilson, who had served as mayor since 2012. Just months after he took office the following year, his administration faced a once-in-a-century public health emergency in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic. Prince responded with a series of restrictions on in-person government services and public gatherings.
“We implemented public health policies that may have been unpopular but were necessary to safeguard lives of all of our residents,” he reflected.
The pandemic also brought about one of the most significant financial boons in Gary’s recent history: The city received just over $80 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), passed by Congress in 2021 to mitigate the economic damage caused by COVID-19.
The money was a significant revenue boost for a city that has struggled with an anemic tax base for decades. Under Prince’s leadership, the city of Gary has put ARPA funds toward a broad array of programs and community investments, including a mobile mental health unit, a new YMCA and wellness facility, grants for nearly 100 local businesses affected by the pandemic, a down payment assistance program, and financial support for a new single-family subdivision, among other expenditures.
The Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana has been another boon. The city has seen its casino revenues double since it opened in 2021, Prince said. He stressed, however, that the city will continue to face significant economic challenges going forward and that long-term solutions to its budget woes will require growth in Gary’s tax base.
“Gary must overcome its financial limitations through growth,” Prince said. “It takes all of us and certainly it takes commitment.”
There are reasons to be optimistic about Gary’s future, the mayor said. Prince pointed to plans for an $8 million “Fiber Smart House,” on which the city recently broke ground. Developed in collaboration with the telecommunications development firm Digital Equity LLC and the conservation nonprofit Decay Devils, the project will transform Gary’s iconic and long-abandoned Union Station into a network operations center and technology job training facility. The project will be funded through a combination of public and private sources.
In addition to bolstering the city’s digital infrastructure, he said, the Fiber Smart House “will encourage others to take a second look at the city of Gary area realize that it is truly a great place to make it smart investment.”
Prince also highlighted the possible return of passenger flights to the Gary/Chicago Airport, which he anticipates will commence next year after a deal is reached with an airline.
A nearly three-decade veteran of city and county government, Prince concluded his remarks by expressing gratitude for the constituents who elected him and “a deep sense of satisfaction” in the work he did.
“As I reflect on my time in office, I can only and honestly say that I have no remorse, no regrets,” Prince said, to a standing ovation. “Every decision, every action was driven by a deep-rooted commitment to this city and its success.”