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Gary, Ind., Breaks Ground on $8M Fiber, Workforce Hub

The Fiber Smart House is a collaboration between the city of Gary and a national telecommunications development firm. The new facility will include a training space and will be a network operations center and fiber access point for large networks.

An aerial view of downtown Gary, Ind.
(TNS) — Gary leaders gathered on Monday to celebrate the start of an $8 million dollar construction project that will turn the city's long-abandoned Union Station into a state of the art fiber optics hub and training facility.

The development is the latest step in a yearslong effort to see the derelict building rehabilitated. First opened in 1910, the train station received rail passengers until it was shuddered in the 1950s and has sat disused ever since, becoming a favored haunt of urban explorers.

In the 2010s, the site attracted the attention of the grassroots preservation group Decay Devils, which purchased Union Station from the city of Gary in 2018 and led a successful effort to get the building added to the U.S. Register of Historic Places the following year.

Decay Devils president Tyrell Anderson linked Union Station's new purpose to its old one.

"This building, from its inception, it's connected people. From New York, all immigrants from across the world came right here, to relocate to work at this company, to build this city, to build this region, to build this heritage area," he told the audience, "and man, we're about to reconnect it again, in a different way."

Thanks to a series of grants from the Merrillville-based Legacy Foundation, the nonprofit Decay Devils were able to begin work on revitalizing the site, which had become overwhelmed with vegetation and trash. Decay Devils oversaw the clearing of the site and the installation of public art pieces and landscaping on the premises. U.S. Steel, whose Gary Works steel mill sits just north of the station, provided new concrete pads on the site.

The Fiber Smart House is a collaboration between the city of Gary and the national telecommunications development firm Digital Equity LLC, which will operate the site through a subsidiary called Gary Digital Equity.

The new facility will include a training space run by the Valparaiso-based nonprofit Center of Workforce Innovations, where local residents can acquire the skills necessary to pursue tech-related careers, Digital Equity partner Tom Dakich told reporters.

The site will also be a network operations center and fiber access point for large networks. Union Station's location between two rail lines, along which fiber optic cables are installed, made it ideal for this purpose, Dakich said. Staff at the facility will be able to monitor networks to ensure they function properly.

Other speakers at the event, including U.S. Sen. Frank Mrvan, D-Highland; Indiana Lt. Gov. Suzanne Crouch; and Gary Mayor Jerome prince, all lauded the development as a step forward for the city's economy.

"Gary is going to plug in to the next generation of jobs," Mrvan said. "AI, quantum computers, being able to bring in businesses, to give our youth a chance."

The Gary Common Council approved the allocation of $5 million dollars in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act toward the project. The remaining $3 million will come from a variety of sources, including private investors, impact fund, and the state of Indiana, Dakich said.

"We've got it all lined up," he said. "It's just a question of how it's all going to fit together."

Construction at the site is being handled by the Chicago-based McLaurin Development partners. Zeb McLaurin, the company's CEO, told reporters that he hopes to contract with the project's complete design and engineering team within the next month and start construction before the end of the year. The project will be completely finished, he said, by August of 2024.

The station's iconic reinforced concrete facade will remain unchanged through the renovations. New windows, custom-built to fit the building's openings, will be installed, and a new roof will place the old one, which has been badly damaged by weather and vegetation.

In the building's vacant interior, McLaurin said, "we have complete discretion and autonomy." His company is considering the possibility of extending the station's existing mezzanine to form a complete second story.

Dakich said that Gary-based companies will be given top priority for construction contracts, with companies based elsewhere in Lake County and in the rest of Indiana receiving consideration before out-of-state businesses.

©2023 the Post-Tribune (Merrillville, Ind.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.