Tourism leaders aren't sure if large crowds can be expected in Gary for the June 25 anniversary of Michael Jackson's death. If they show up, though, it will give local businesses a chance to capture valuable out-of-town dollars.
Mayor Rudy Clay has said the city is preparing for "thousands" of visitors to descend Friday on the Jackson Family home in the 2300 block of Jackson Street, where a candlelight vigil is planned. But Clay said this week's event isn't about making money.
"This is not about hoopla," Clay said. "This is about a memorial service for Michael."
Gary Chamber of Commerce Director Chuck Hughes acknowledged there are fewer hotels and restaurants in Gary where people can drop dollars while they're in town. However, Hughes said drawing a healthy crowd is the first step toward generating economic development.
"If you have a catalyst, and I would consider Michael Jackson's life as a catalyst, I think that's a first step in acquiring these things," Hughes said.
But Erika Scheeringa, director of public and community relations for the South Shore Convention & Visitors Authority, said any money spent in Gary would be helpful. That's because local governments don't need to spend any money to provide services like garbage pick-up or public education to tourists.
"Even if they stop at McDonald's, that influx of people has positively helped the area," Scheeringa said.
Clay said he's been approached by people interested in selling Jackson memorabilia outside the home Friday. Last week, though, City Hall officials said no one had applied for a vendor's license.
"I haven't gotten involved in any of that," Clay said.
It's hard to say how many people will show for the candlelight vigil. Last year City Hall predicted between 10,000 and 20,000 people would show for a tribute to Jackson at the U.S. Steel Yard weeks after he died. Actual attendance was reported to be about 7,500.
Hughes and Scheeringa said their offices regularly receive calls about Jackson's ties to Northwest Indiana, but few, if any, callers have asked about the events tied to the anniversary of his death. Nor have they asked the Porter County Convention, Recreation & Visitor Commission, Executive Director Lorelei Weimer said.
Toine Heijmans, a staff writer for the Dutch national newspaper de Volkskrant, visited Gary last week to write about Jackson's hometown. He said he spent his nights at a Chesterton bed and breakfast. He also said Gary should be prepared for lots of visitors because of the accessibility of the Jackson house.
"You can't go to Neverland," Heijmans said. "You can stand at the gate."
That house is difficult to market to out-of-towners, though, Scheeringa said. It's legally a private residence, she pointed out, no matter who lived there. So her agency's staff is forced to walk a fine line.
"There's a song written about it," Scheeringa said. "It's not like it's not public information."
But it'd be helpful, she said, if the tourism bureau had an actual venue to promote. Gary mayors have promised to build a Jackson Family museum since the 1990s. Clay added to that list of promises earlier this month by proposing a $300 million Jackson Family Center to be built in Glen Park.
A real estate agreement between the Jackson Family Foundation and the city anticipates public money will be used for the project, though Clay said Gary's tax dollars won't be among them. There is also controversy over the rights to Michael Jackson's name and image. The foundation claims to have secured that right, but the singer's estate denies it.
If the Jackson Family Center is built as proposed, Hughes said it could be an economic boon for more than just Gary.
"The extent of the love and the adulation and the reverence of Michael Jackson is probably less appreciated here than it is around the world," Hughes said. "I think that the region is going to be swept up in the enthusiasm."