Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson knows that when something new comes to the city, the first question from residents is what it means for them.
Freeman-Wilson had to ask herself that same question earlier this month ahead of the National League of Cities meeting. Freeman-Wilson became the national organization’s president, and easily answered the question as to what her role would mean for Gary.
“It means opportunity,” Freeman-Wilson said.
Each president sets an agenda for the year, Freeman-Wilson said, and hers is to help create cities for all generations. Freeman-Wilson said the organization will look at opportunities around the future of work, education and senior citizen concerns, and explore issues facing legacy cities like Gary.
The National League of Cities represents municipalities across the country, according to the group, and has more than 1,900 members. Freeman-Wilson said she’s comfortable in her role as the lead spokesperson for communities whose interests might not be the same as Gary’s.
But being active in the National League of Cities isn’t just about ideas, the mayor said.
“I could list any number of opportunities that either developed or were enhanced by my participation in NLC,” Freeman-Wilson said. “And the good thing is it doesn’t cost the city anything.”
Often people from other cities don’t see Gary the same as those who live there, Freeman-Wilson said, and they just know of Michael Jackson, crime and steel.
“Gary is so much more than all of those things,” Freeman-Wilson said.
Freeman-Wilson said people don’t know about the city’s capacity for new transportation infrastructure, like a proposed Buffington Harbor facility, or the new companies moving into Gary.
In a city that has similar challenges as Gary, Freeman-Wilson said people can’t look inwardly for solutions. She said the city needs to look for partnerships and ideas from outside.
The National League of Cities is a place where cities can learn from each other and get new ideas, Freeman-Wilson said.
Freeman-Wilson said she got the idea for a block clean up program from Macon, Ga.
As ideas are exchanged, Freeman-Wilson said people from other towns and cities want to see how something is working and seeing signs of progress.
“You can never get advice from too many places,” Freeman-Wilson said.
At one conference, Freeman-Wilson said she talked with the CEO of ESRI, a GIS firm, who had noticed the work Gary was doing to use the software. She said the CEO offered to send someone to Gary to help increase the city’s capabilities and talk about setting up GIS programs in the schools.
That would have been a costly proposal if the city attempted to do it on its own, Freeman-Wilson said, but ESRI is offering it at no cost.
“That’s just one opportunity,” Freeman-Wilson said.
Another example is when former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg came to Gary, Freeman-Wilson said.
“He’s not visiting a whole lot of cities,” Freeman-Wilson said.
The visit came about through networking and involvement, Freeman-Wilson said, and that’s brought in money from the Bloomberg Foundation and opportunities through various programs.
“That all comes from being involved,” Freeman-Wilson said.
Freeman-Wilson said she remembered when former Mayor Richard Hatcher was criticized for his national profile and leadership with the U.S. Conference of Mayors.
“There were a lot of benefits the city received from the profile he had,” Freeman-Wilson said.
Freeman-Wilson said her leadership with the National League of Cities may require some long hours and travel, but it won’t take away from her work in Gary.
“Home always takes priority,” Freeman-Wilson said.