By Stefan Vilcins

“It’s the ultimate beauty-and-the-beast story,” Ben Clement says of the event he’s brought to Gary, Indiana. “You have all these attractive women who could go anywhere on the planet–why come to Gary?”

Clement, Gary’s director of economic development, has some high expectations for his beloved city. And at this point, like it or not, Gary may have no choice but to live up to them. March 2 a national TV audience of millions is expected to tune in to watch Chicago’s beleaguered neighbor host the 50th annual Miss USA pageant.

Clement’s office at Fifth and Broadway is right in the heart of downtown Gary. In this city, that’s often considered more a hazard than a convenience. Just a couple blocks to the north are the twin golden domes of city hall and the Lake County courthouse–among the few landmarks the downtown has to offer and possibly the only visible reminder of Gary most Chicagoans get when they speed down the Skyway through this smokestack-lined corridor in northwest Indiana. Directly across Fifth is the new shining star of downtown, the recently renovated 6,000-seat Genesis Convention Center, the site of the pageant. To the south is the kind of scene that people more commonly associate with the city: a strip of forlorn, boarded-up storefronts, abandoned, forgotten, and stretching as far as the eye can see. Many of the buildings haven’t been occupied for over ten years.

“Utter shock was the first reaction,” Clement says of the backlash the city experienced when it was announced as the pageant site last March. “People were amazed that Gary would even have the audacity to compete for the honor of hosting the pageant.”

Clement, though, seems to be in his element when confronting the public’s negative impression of his hometown, regardless of the fact that in 1996 it still ranked as the murder capital of the country and that, despite ongoing efforts to stimulate the economy, it had the highest unemployment rate in Indiana last year. His intense inner drive seems to be fueled by the stigma that Gary bears.

Clement first heard the words “Miss USA” and “Gary” together almost a year and a half ago, after an offhand meeting between Gary mayor Scott King and Donald Trump–co-owner of the pageant and also the owner of Gary’s newest attraction, the Trump Hotel and Casino. Through that conversation, King had learned that the Miss Universe organization, which runs Miss USA, was accepting host-city bids for its 2001 event. King, who had been trying feverishly to find an event with the potential to finally draw tourism to Gary, saw a golden opportunity, but there was a small catch: the deadline for bids was only one week away.

“I got called into Mayor King’s office,” Clement says. “And he said that he wanted me to draft a bid package so that Gary could throw its hat in the ring.” The assignment seemed simple and, at the same time, utterly impossible.

“I started by meeting with city officials and organizations to get some input on where to start,” says Clement. “But even after those meetings, I was still facing a blank computer screen and had less than a week to put together this 50-page proposal.”

While the specifics of the bid that he assembled are still confidential, he says that other than the promise of hotel accommodations, food, and transportation for the Miss USA delegates and staff–“no-brainer stuff,” as Clement puts it–there were few contractual guarantees made by the city. Along with the $1.2 million the basics would cost, Gary would also have to pay the $800,000 ‘site fee,’ a fee that Clement says is standard for the host city each year.

“In terms of specifically applying funding for this pageant, though, I can’t say a whole lot of that’s been done,” Clement says. “Most of the city improvements cited in the bid proposal were things that were already happening anyway.”

Clement marketed Gary as a city with a story of redemption and resurrection. “I think the fact that we have a story to tell here was a major selling point–that we’re a phoenix rising from the ashes. The story here isn’t where Gary has been–that’s over, that’s past. The real story here is, Where is Gary going to be five years from now? Where is Gary going to be a short two years from now?”

That story makes Clement’s eyes light up with conviction and contagious excitement. He animatedly explains the long list of ambitious projects Gary is taking on: the renovation of the Genesis Convention Center, the new International Basketball League team the Gary Steelheads, the minor league baseball team that Gary has just brought to town, the multimillion-dollar stadium that will hopefully be built by next spring, the $2.5 million downtown restoration project, the media center to be built across the street from his offices, a proposed $400 million lakefront resort, and the expansion of the Gary airport. It seems like a fantastic amount of development to expect over a three-year period, but Clement says that it has already begun. “These are things that are real, that are gonna be there. Gary will not look like this next year.”

Clement thinks that Gary’s status as a massive work in progress is the driving force behind the city being awarded hosting honors not only for this year, but all the way through 2003. “The fact that the viewers at home in years one through three will see such an improvement of the city became a main selling point for us,” says Clement. In being the means by which the rest of the country becomes aware of Gary’s resurgence, the pageant stands to gain a degree of public goodwill as well.

That each side might benefit is what makes this odd marriage so ideal. Clement is the first to acknowledge, though, that this three-year contract is just another puzzle piece in his master plan for Gary, which is to get back what has been lost over the past 30 years. He thinks the real value of the event lies in the publicity that it can create.

“One of the biggest challenges of a city with the image that Gary has is, How do you promote the city, how do you market it for business investment, for residential investment, for image enhancement?–and one of the best ways to do that is simply through advertising.”

Gary will be getting its share of ad time during the telecast–nine to twelve minutes of it over two hours. The city will use the time to run spots shot mostly last August, when 13 of the pageant contestants were flown in so the city could be captured in the more picturesque summer months. But the fact that the national airtime Gary will receive is worth almost as much as the $2.8 million it is investing in the event is still secondary to Clement.

“In the process of redefining Gary with this pageant telecast, we can finally put a fresh face on who we are as a people,” he says. In speaking of the long-term effects of the pageant, he often refers to what he calls ‘repeat customers,’ using terms like ‘paradigm shift’ to describe the important effect Miss USA might have on public opinion. Ultimately he thinks the pageant will provide Gary with a captive audience that may be willing to give the town a second chance. “This pageant will give us an opportunity to tell our story to the world,” he says. “And that is the real value of this project.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.