- Associated Press - Sunday, February 23, 2014

GARY, Ind. (AP) - The Genesis Convention Center was never the start of anything.

The civic center opened three decades ago around the time the much larger Allstate Arena did in Rosemont, but never packed in the same crowds. Taxpayer subsidies kept the lights on, and the facility broke even last year after expenses were slashed by 30 percent, The Times reported (http://bit.ly/1k0BqYo ).

An economist and an urban affairs expert say there is no easy way to get more use and revenue out of the facility, which hosted 252 events last year. They warn another sports team would not be a huge draw and conventioneers are not going to flock to Gary. But, they say, the Genesis Center could bring people downtown if it were a regional home for local college basketball teams or if it offered a wider variety of events.

The facility across from City Hall was dreamed up in the 1970s, and never lived up to the promise of rebirth for downtown Gary.

Built for $25 million and opened in 1981, the Genesis Center notched a few successes in its early days: a Baptist National Convention that brought 30,000 people to town; a rodeo; a Civil Rights Museum telethon and a preseason game with Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.

The facility at Fifth Avenue and Broadway attracted so few convention delegates that the Sheraton Hotel across the street closed four years after the Genesis Center opened. The skywalk between the buildings was never finished.

Hope glittered when the venue hosted the Miss USA pageants in 2001 and 2002. But the beauty queens left town, and never came back. No nationally significant event has been held at the Genesis Center since.

The Gary Steelheads minor league basketball team played at the arena for eight years, and then the Gary Splash basketball team came and went with a faint ripple. The Genesis Convention Center has drained millions of tax dollars from strained city coffers, most recently for roof and air conditioning upgrades.

Gary defrayed more than $1 million of the center’s operating expenses in 2012, but the City Council has not approved a subsidy since then, Controller Celita Green said. Future contributions will depend on how much funding is requested, what is available and what is prioritized at the time, she said.

The 6,000-seat area is city-owned, but it has its own budget and a board responsible for its management, city spokeswoman Chelsea Whittington said.

Last year, the center brought in $557,000 in revenue and cost $550,000 to run, interim director Gwen Williams said.

“We’re always looking for more bookings,” she said.

Recent events have included gospel concerts, Indiana University Northwest commencements, and a performance by rapper Rick Ross. There are also meetings and banquets. A 200-person room at the Genesis Center can be rented for six hours for $100 any night of the week. Reserving the whole place runs for up to $3,500 on the weekend.

Efforts to get more use out of the center should focus on the local Northwest Indiana market, said Aaron Renn, an urban affairs expert who writes the popular and influential Urbanophile blog.

“Gary is a lot different from convention cities like Chicago or Indianapolis,” he said. “They have great restaurants, safety, great hotels, plenty of swank places where you can entertain customers. Gary has a reputation, and the reality makes it a tough sell.”

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