Gary’s ‘homecoming’ taps into expat energy

In Gary, Ind., as in many communities across the U.S., homecoming is a nostalgic time to connect with old friends from school for a football game or a dance. Now, Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson is adding a new dimension to the autumn tradition.

Freeman-Wilson sees homecoming as a chance to engage Gary’s large diaspora — people who grew up in the city and moved away but are cheering Gary on from afar. She recently staged a homecoming event, timed to coincide with a local high school’s 50th anniversary celebration. Her goal? To connect with people during their visits back home, tap into their expat energy, and then put it to work for the city.

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About 100 people from across the country attended the event, which was held at ArtHouse, a “social kitchen” and community space that opened two years ago with a grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies. For this former steel-manufacturing hub, which has lost more than half of its population since the 1960s, this was an opportunity to showcase positive local momentum that is often neglected in national press coverage.

“We have this rich community of people who have done extremely well and attribute their success to the foundation that was laid in Gary,” Freeman-Wilson said. “They came out because they wanted to know more about the plans for the city. They also came out because of their deep connections to the city. Some said, ‘I hear about the work you all are doing, and we are supportive of that, and we’re rooting for you.’ So there was this desire to be helpful, a desire to know more so that they could plug in and participate.”

Inspiration to stage the event came, in part, from a Gary native who now lives in San Antonio, where he teaches marketing and customer service at a community college. About a year ago, he offered to come home to Gary on his own dime, and give free customer-service training to city staff. To Freeman-Wilson, it was a good model of expat engagement, focused not just on ideas but on doing things that aligned with her goals as mayor.

“It really needs to be driven by people who aren’t just saying, ‘Here’s what I think you should do,’ — because we get a lot of that — but also, ‘We’re willing to help you do it,’” she said.

Other inspiration came from Detroit, where the publication Crain’s Detroit Business has hosted a similar homecoming event for five years. It’s grown into a major business networking gathering where deals get done: Organizers cite more than $300 million worth of investments and nonprofit contributions that have flowed from the events.

In Gary, the September 21 homecoming roundtable featured talks by local leaders, breakout sessions on topics such as public safety, infrastructure, and health, as well as three hours for networking. One big hit was a large touch-screen display featuring city data on vacancy, population, schools, jobs, parks, and more. Attendees enjoyed pulling up maps of the neighborhoods where they grew up and drilling down into the data on what’s going on there.

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“People were like, ‘Wow, you’ve got all this data!’” said Karla Henderson, who organized the event. “They felt assured that we’ve got this capable mayor and the city is in good hands.”

Gary’s homecoming produced a number of leads. One expat is interested in starting a jazz festival in Gary. Another is interested in setting up a manufacturing plant. Others are interested in investing in some of the city’s vacant land.

For Freeman-Wilson and her staff, the next step is follow up: They’re planning a webinar specifically for attendees who want to know more about economic development opportunities. They’re also thinking about flipping the model around, turning homecoming into a roadshow, potentially with stops in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and other cities where a lot of Gary natives are now living.

And they’re also thinking ahead to next year, and how to sustain homecoming as an annual event without draining scarce city resources and staff time. One goal is to find a way to have the expats run it themselves. “We need it to be in the hands of people who are not only willing to provide ideas,” Freeman-Wilson said, “but also to lead and provide the sweat equity involved in the implementation.”

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