Four decades ago, Gary was a booming city of steel. A town that produced the likes of Michael Jackson and The Jackson 5. In the years since, the city has become a tragic portrait of America’s industrial decline. But two young women are trying to change the narrative of a town they both admit is best known by its nickname “Scary Gary.”
Jessica Renslow works as a community builder in Gary. Gretchen Sipp is the stage manager at The Stage Small Business Incubator in Gary. Sipp and Renslow have joined forces to take back their city.
"I am a die-hard Gary citizen. I grew up in Gary. I’ve been in Gary for 30 years. It is my home. I’ve left, I’ve come back. I’ve left, I’ve come back. This is where I’m planted. So for me, I want to see the true essence of what a Gary citizen looks like," said Sipp, adding, "I think it is coming. I think we are on the verge of something big."
That something happened in February: the soft launch of Gary’s first coworking space, The Stage Small Business Incubator. Nestled in what Sipp describes as "an old grocery store, workout facility and jazz club reformatted into an awesome office space, collaborative space and makerspace." The Stage is located in what is known as the "Shelby Locust Square" of Gary’s Miller Beach area.
"It is truly unique, inviting creativity and community," says Sipp.
The business incubator currently has 20 full-time members which is full capacity for the space, until they officially launch in January of 2018.
And while The Stage is still in its infancy, Sipp believes the majority of their members are simply looking for support.
"It is really the distribution of knowledge that they need to become official with the state. Many of them worry about getting sued. A lot of them worry about not being legal." Sipp adds, "So making sure they have everything that they need. Number one to be legal, number two, to be accountable and number three, to actually keep their businesses, be sustainable, and grow out of this space and have their own."
Community Builder Jessica Renslow says this is all part of an on-going place-making effort. She sites a bike sharing program and an adaptive kayak lunch as just a few examples of the growing movement. "Who knew that we would have so many people wanting to kayak in Gary, Indiana?"
Renslow says not only has the local media really bought into the new community building activities going on in the area, but the activities themselves have served as an economic driver to the overall cause.
"Folks are now like, ‘Hey, where do I eat? Is there a place I can get a cup of coffee and Internet?’" said Renslow. "That all feeds back to the importance of a coworking space and helping members build boutique businesses to meet the demand."