In a candid and comprehensive conversation, two Capital B Gary’s reporters sat down with the city’s newly elected mayor, state Sen. Eddie Melton. The discussion offered a glimpse into why Melton moved from the statehouse to the mayoral office, his perspective on pressing issues confronting Gary’s Black residents, and some lighthearted matters.

The interview spanned a range of topics, from strategic plans to address public safety to his favorite civil rights leaders, and his preferred late-night snack.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Capital B Gary: You have served the people of Gary and Northwest Indiana at the state level as a senator since being elected in 2016. What inspired this pivot to want to be the mayor of Gary? 

Mayor-elect Eddie Melton: I know that Gary still struggles with overcoming its economic woes. And I wanted to provide this same fight that I did downstate, which was a very tumultuous environment.

I want to bring that same fight back home every single day. Downstate there are three or four months out of the year where we’re trying to move legislation and bring resources home. But Gary needs somebody that’s going to bring that same type of energy and effort every single day.

Can you pinpoint a moment that sparked this ambition?

The primary is behind us, and the current administration has been very helpful. I want to make sure I’m clear on that. But I didn’t agree with the direction that they were taking the city in. And I believe that I had a better vision and a plan to move in the right direction. This was just pure desire to see the city move forward. Our campaign slogan is “Gary Deserves Better NOW”. “Now” stands for No Opportunities Wasted.

When you sit back on the state level and look at all the opportunities we have, from the International Airport to the commuter rail that travels from here to downtown Chicago, to the lakefront, with almost 4 miles of recreational beachfront, to every major highway that touches or passes through Gary, all of it positions us for a greater economic opportunity.

And we’re not maximizing or seizing those moments. The stars have aligned I believe for us to execute. So while we have a Democratic president, while we have Cabinet members that are from this region, while we have a moderate Republican governor, that has been an ally. I believe we have this unique window to really execute and make some things happen, bringing some resources home. 

We’re not going to see this amount of federal resources probably in our lifetime again that’s out on the streets now to address legacy issues that Gary’s facing. Dealing with environmental issues, dealing with economic development, dealing with transportation, dealing with energy.

So we have to maximize it. I have those direct relationships that we already started seeking those grants, having conversation with leaders in the White House, in Congress, to make sure Gary has access to those resources.

Given your background in social work and youth mentorship, what plans do you have to expand job opportunities and extracurricular activities for young people?

When I was a kid, every school in the summertime had open recreation. You can play gym and basketball, and over the years, you’ve slowly seen those opportunities dwindle where there are minimal safe spaces for youth and young adults.

So, working with the school corporation and the city hand in hand is something that has to happen and has yet to happen over the years. So we can create more safe spaces during those off-peak times after school and during summertime.

And I look at it as economic development. The byproduct of that is more opportunities for youth employment, as we’re looking at bringing more restaurants and family-friendly entertainment. We don’t have a bowling alley. We don’t have a movie theater. We have a great organization in the Boys and Girls Club. But we only have a few nonprofits with the assets or resources to let kids have fun and play. 

It will be important for us to pull the youth to the table and have them share with us what they would like to see in the city. 

Growing up in Gary, I had to struggle and deal with crime, violence, drugs, and all of those things that we see still exist. But I didn’t have to deal with the pressures of social media. So we have to bring them to the table, the youth, and ask them what they want to see. What does a youth-friendly community look like in 2024 and beyond? How do we provide that with the resources that we have?

Crime has long been a major concern for the residents of Gary. What strategies will your administration implement to reduce crime and enhance public safety? Are there any plans beyond policing efforts?

One of the main things is to approach public safety with a greater emphasis on prevention. So, how do we provide more workforce opportunities, counseling and assistance to address mental health addiction? That’s the prevention aspect. And when I look at studies around the country, communities with more accessible support services tend to have lower outcomes regarding criminal activity. That’s where the after-school programs, summer programs, or summer jobs come into play. So we have to create a climate and culture that supports that. 

It’s going to be important to incorporate more community-oriented policing where they’re visiting schools. They have a positive presence in the community. They know the neighborhood block clubs. They’re going to speak at these events. So they’re also ambassadors of communities. That’s going to play a part in folks knowing and reducing those violent activities because police officers have a more prevalent presence in the city. 

I know we’ve had some relationships with our other federal, state, and county partners. But we must strengthen those relationships because we can’t cover everything as a city with manpower. So we’ll have to partner with those when the time is right. Recruitment and retention is going to be extremely important because of our resources, a lot of officers leave and go to other cities. I want to promote the programs we have. It’s a program that allows public safety officials and city workers to get down-payment assistance to buy a new home. We have to promote that. I don’t know if everyone realizes that’s available as an incentive for them to stay and not leave and go to another neighboring community that might pay five or 10 grand more. 

Residents continue to voice frustration over the numerous vacant schools that spoil neighborhoods. What is your plan to address these eyesores?

Around the country, you see a mixture of renovating a lot of old schools but also maximizing the acreage it sits on with potential new development. Most of the Gary schools probably sit on 10 acres or more. As a city that has a shrinking tax base, we have to stabilize our population. But in addition to that, we have to grow our population. So, looking for opportunities to build more quality housing, workforce housing. A mixture of market rates and affordable housing will give people an opportunity to stay here: seniors who want to stay here, individuals who want to move back, families that have children and want to get them into local schools, that we have to both stabilize and grow the population. And a lot of these parcels of abandoned schools. I can envision being a great site location for housing. 

Who are three of your favorite civil rights leaders?

Whitney Young is one figure who, I believe, doesn’t receive the recognition he deserves, particularly for his role during the civil rights era. He was adept at bridging gaps across various sectors, including government and corporate, and I admire his approach. While many people highlight Dr. King — and rightfully so — the more you delve into the research, the more you understand his humanity. These individuals were young, and I deeply value the sacrifices they made.

I will also have to go with Mayor Richard Hatcher — right here from Gary. He was one of the founders of TransAfrica, which helped free Nelson Mandela and helped be the brainchild of the Congressional Black Caucus and the African American Mayors Association. These were transformative initiatives that somebody right here in Gary was a catalyst for. It’s crucial that we celebrate and recognize these achievements and inform the younger generation that such greatness still resides here.

It’s 9 p.m. You’ve had a long workday. Public service can be stressful. What’s your go-to snack?

I’m not really a snack person like that. If I’m in the office, it’s M&Ms. … I also definitely like a good old bag of popcorn. Classic butter popcorn.

What song or album do you have on repeat right now?

Right now, it’s been a lot of Fred Hammond. But if I’m feeling hood, I might put some Reasonable Doubt on.

What is the biggest misconception of Gary and its people?

We’re just trying to change that narrative. It’s a fight against the algorithm. So, we’re going to have to fight back by promoting more positive images of Gary — our festivals, people enjoying the beach, attending a minor league baseball game, spending time in our parks, and many other beautiful aspects. I mean, we have the national dunes. Almost 4 million people annually visit the Dunes. They’re not telling that story. They’re telling them about abandoned buildings. And they make it seem like abandoned buildings are something that we want.

No, this is a city that has lost over half its population. We were almost at 200,000 people; now we have 70,000. So, it’s going to take a Herculean effort to address the blight.