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Jackson Hometown May Get Tourism Boost

GARY, Ind. - Marzella Hicks hopes Michael Jackson's legacy to his hometown will be a permanent tribute to his life and music that rescues this troubled city.

Like many people here, Hicks, 65, believes a proposed Jackson museum could attract tourists and their dollars and restore Gary's pride and prosperity.

"It hurts my heart when I walk these streets. I want to cry," says Hicks, a retiree who has witnessed the city's decline as jobs in its steel plants disappeared. "If they make that museum, our city is going to come back and it's going to be as strong as ever."

Since Jackson's death on June 25, the vacant two-bedroom home at 2300 Jackson St. (named for the U.S. president, not the entertainers) where he lived with his parents and siblings until 1968 has become a shrine.

There's a pile of stuffed animals, flowers and notes outside, and even the round globe of a yard light is covered with messages. The Jacksons own the house.

Vendors sell T-shirts and pins bearing Jackson's image. On weekends, JWR Tours charges $55 to bring people here from Chicago by bus. A block party is planned on Aug. 29, which would have been Jackson's 51st birthday.

Interest in Jackson's roots has revived momentum among officials here for building a museum dedicated to him. Mayor Rudy Clay says developers want to erect a hotel adjacent to a museum. He plans to seek historical status for the neighborhood around the Jackson home.

"We want to make Michael Jackson's home shine for the entire world. This would be a boost for the city," Clay says. "We're adamant about making it happen."

City is 'pretty bad'

The Jacksons' final album, released in 1989, was called 2300 Jackson Street and included a song with the same title. The chorus includes the refrain "2300 Jackson Street, always home."

When the Jacksons lived here, Gary had almost twice as many residents as it does now and the steel industry provided good jobs. Patriarch Joe Jackson was a crane operator at a steel plant.

Now there are blocks of boarded-up stores on Broadway, the main drag, and abandoned homes in most neighborhoods. The city has a budget shortfall and the jobless rate is 12 percent.

"Anything would help Gary. It's pretty bad," says Daniel Golden Sr., 64, owner of Danny's, a carryout restaurant on Broadway.

Talk of an homage to the Jacksons here began before Michael Jackson's death. In 1995, city officials met with the family in California about a museum and amusement park. During a 2003 visit to Gary, Michael Jackson spoke of plans for a performing arts center. Last year, Joe Jackson was here to discuss a museum.

Clay says the Elvis Presley Birthplace in Tupelo, Miss., is a model for what could happen here. It draws 80,000 visitors a year who pay $12 each to tour the house where Presley was born and lived until he was 3, a church and a museum, executive director Dick Guyton says.

Chuck Hughes, who as a city councilman went to California in 1995 and is now executive director of the Gary Chamber of Commerce, says Gary's role in Jackson history "is a blessing for the city."

The city could "use almost anything that says 'Michael Jackson' as an anchor to promote existing businesses and develop new businesses," he says. "Michael Jackson could likely singlehandedly resurrect his hometown."

Any revenue would help

Lisa Heath, 32, who has four children and works at a day care center here, is skeptical that Michael Jackson, who didn't invest here when he was alive, can save it after his death.

"It's all bad," she says. "No jobs, no good schools. There's not even a good playground for my kids. What can Michael Jackson do to fix that?"

Salah Jaber, owner of More 4 Less Beauty Supply, has a rack of $10 Michael Jackson T-shirts, but he doesn't think a museum would bring him many new customers. Still, he says, "Anything extra is better than nothing."

Pamela Carey, 34, owner of Glamorous Paradise Beauty Salon, is in favor of anything that improves life here. "Let's bring some money into the city," she says. "A museum seems like a great idea."

Debra Hill, 54, agrees. She grew up here and lives in Memphis, home of Presley's Graceland, a tourist favorite. "Gary has changed drastically, and not for the better. It's horrible," she says.

While she was in town this week for a family reunion, Hill stopped at the Jackson home twice to take photos and buy T-shirts. She thinks Gary should capitalize on its Jackson connection.

"They should take people to Roosevelt High School" where the Jacksons won a talent show and where Tito Jackson was in her history class, she says. "They should have a petting zoo and a carnival. Let's just blow it out. Think of the revenue it could bring to the city."

For now, a banner across Broadway is proof that Jackson's memory is still alive. It plays on a Jackson 5 song: "We never can say goodbye."

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