GARY | The Majestic Star Casinos were welcomed here 17 years ago as the brightest hope this blighted city had seen in decades.
The riverboats not only supplied needed jobs, but also generated taxes the city used to build the $45 million Steel Yard baseball stadium. The city also was able to do a $7 million refit of the Genesis Convention Center for professional basketball and a beauty pageant, transform an abandoned hospital into a $15 million public safety center and millions more for building airport hangers, revitalizing city parks and demolishing abandoned buildings.
But the era of splashy capital projects dissolved into bailing out the city's daily operations budget when property taxes went south. It got worse when a lawsuit between Majestic and the city throttled off almost all casino tax payments for the past three years.
Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson said the suit is resolved, and casino funds are flowing again.
"The (property tax) caps hit us harder than any community in the state. We were faced with sanitary district and (Regional Development Authority) debts of about $14 million," she said.
She hopes the new local income tax will buoy the city's finances and let them use casino funds once-again for more forward-looking projects.
"It will be a process for us to get back. We estimate by 2015 or 2016 you will see an appreciable (surplus) in casino dollars assigned to some of the projects we all anticipate will be used for. Going forward, it is our desire to return to capital investments.
"My main wish involves street paving. Our roads are in terrible shape. It's something I hear from residents all the time. That will be a multimillion-(dollar) project.
"I'd like to look at the opportunity to use casino dollars to support the North Side Development project and the University Park project, particularly if we look at retail development about Indiana University Northwest," the mayor added.
She acknowledges that prior to her administration, casino money was spent in ways no longer followed.
A Times review of city records indicate at least $22,000 in casino dollars were donated to dozens of city churches and a variety of organizations in the last years of former Mayor Rudy Clay.
They ranged from a $500 gift to the Humane Society of Northwest Indiana, $250 to the Gary Frontiers Service Club, $200 to the African American Achievers, $250 to the Gary Literacy Coalition, $1,000 to the YWCA, $400 to the Miller Little League, $300 to the Sojourner Truth House and $400 to the Crisis Center Inc.
M. Celita Green, director of city finance, said the city stopped most donations two years ago. Freeman-Wilson said such donation now come from her campaign funds or a small amount of unappropriated money left over from the city's previous community support program.
The Gary Barden Foundation still makes hundreds of thousands in regular donations to city food banks, student scholarships and other charitable needs.
City records indicate they have used what casino money they found to pay down municipal debt, pay the professional fees of private consultants working for the city, a limited amount of street resurfacing, the purchase of ambulances and lawn maintenance at city parks among other miscellaneous uses.