Michael Jackson's familiar falsetto and catchy pop melodies became omnipresent after his death in 2009. The King of Pop had a hit movie, his music topped the charts and a video game is on the way. But to truly secure his legacy, some members of his family are looking toward their Hoosier hometown of Gary.
People in that struggling steel town are proud to say one of the world's greatest entertainers lived there. His music is on regular rotation on local radio. And anyone put on hold during a phone call to City Hall will hear Jackson and his siblings crooning about "2300 Jackson St."
The Jacksons really did grow up at that address, on a road named not for them but for President Andrew Jackson. The tiny white house that sheltered all nine children is still there. Its lawn was trampled by mourning fans in 2009, so a fence protects its freshly planted flowers and lush green grass today. Michael Jackson himself appears on a granite monument on the property's northeast corner, posing in full moonwalk above the same dirt where he played as a boy.
Now a shrine, the Jacksons' home has never looked better.
The fortunes of their hometown are just the opposite. Middle-class families were spooked away long ago by Gary's "murder capital" reputation. Its downtown corridor is lined with empty storefronts. The unemployment rate is reported at 15.5 percent, with foreclosures at 18.1 percent. Local government is nearly insolvent.
When Katherine Jackson, Michael Jackson's mother, visited on the anniversary of her son's death this year, she lamented the downfall of the former City of the Century.
"I was thinking, I wish someone would come and build a factory or something and give people jobs," Katherine Jackson told the Gary Post-Tribune.
Many people share her wish. For a long time, they've also wished the Jacksons would return and invest in a way that would jolt the local economy and save Gary government from bankruptcy.
Now family patriarch Joe Jackson and a Las Vegas business partner say they're going to do it. They promised this year to build the Jackson Family Center, a $300 million entertainment megaplex on Gary's south side, and break ground early next year. The idea delighted Jackson fans around the world, many of whom already journeyed into Gary for a visit to 2300 Jackson.
But locals have heard this story many times before. After more than a decade of promises, the only hometown shrine to the King of Pop sits on Jackson Street. Meanwhile Gary is fighting for its life, so its mayor wants to help the family finally give Michael Jackson his Graceland.
By doing so, however, he might have pulled his city into a complex legal web where attorneys are already struggling for control of Michael Jackson's legacy.
Bold plans, few details
The Jackson family has been accused of many things. Thinking small isn't one of them. Their Jackson Family Center is no exception. Joe Jackson and Simon Sahouri, the Las Vegas-based president of the new Jackson Family Foundation, offered few details at a June press conference in downtown Gary's Genesis Convention Center.
Instead, they offered bold predictions.
Artists' renderings of the Jackson Family Center portray a sprawling campus south of Interstate 80/94 boasting a Jackson Family Museum and Cultural Center, a Michael Jackson Performing Arts Center and Concert Hall, and a Michael Jackson Memorial Pavilion. Hotels, retail and housing developments would sit nearby, and an elevated train would connect the complex with Northwest Indiana's commuter rail system running from South Bend to Chicago.
It would all be built on what is now a public golf course and a crumbling football stadium owned by the city. Gary promised that property, hundreds of acres, to the Jackson Family Foundation in a deal also signed this year by Sahouri and the Jackson parents.
"It's something that my family and Michael have always wanted," Joe Jackson said.
This kind of investment, if delivered, would be a boon anywhere. In Gary, it would be a godsend. Gov. Mitch Daniels convinced the Indiana General Assembly to pass new taxpayer protection laws two years ago that cut off some of local governments' revenue. The only place they're not in full effect is Gary, but the city's income has dried up dramatically anyway.
Hoosiers voted to make those laws constitutional in November, meaning that even Gary will feel the full impact of the laws in 2012. When that happens, a state-imposed fiscal monitor said the city will only have enough cash to pay the salaries of its police and firefighters. There'd be nothing else in a city where government has been described as the primary employer.
Gary Mayor Rudy Clay, who watched fans of all ages and races crowd the 2300 block of Jackson last year, believes the Jackson Family Center could avert the "financial torpedo." The best way for Hoosier governments to create new revenue is to prompt property values up. If a $300 million privately owned tourist-magnet were to replace a crumbling, untaxable football stadium, Gary could finally get some breathing room in its budget.
Clay is known for thinking just as big as the Jacksons. Unfortunately, none of the grand promises he's made as mayor have come true. The former state senator is a personable optimist who insists "Gary's best days are yet to come." His critics are more cynical. They're wary the Jackson Family Center is a get-rich Joe Jackson boondoggle that will leave local taxpayers with the bill.
The deal signed at Gary City Hall does, in fact, say the Jackson Family Foundation might seek tax money for the project. Clay says local money is off the table, though.
"Gary, Indiana's taxpayers won't be funding this project," Clay said.
Who owns Michael?
The deal between the Jackson Family Foundation and the City of Gary also makes a key claim that could prompt a legal challenge. The Foundation says Joe and Katherine Jackson gave it the right to use Michael Jackson's name and image for the project.
But the singer's estate says it's not theirs to give.
California attorney Howard Weitzman represents John Branca and John McClain, the estate's executors. After the press conference in June, he fired off a statement that said the estate is considering its own "world-class museum" at a site yet to be determined. He said they knew nothing of the Gary project.
"Michael Jackson's music, name, likeness, memorabilia and other intellectual property are assets exclusively owned by the Estate for the benefit of his children, his mother during her lifetime and charities as specified in his will," Weitzman wrote. "These properties cannot be exploited legally without written authorization from the estate."
Sahouri, the Foundation president, didn't respond to multiple calls seeking comment for this story. He brushed off Weitzman's comment in June and said the project is moving forward. A Vegas promoter and publisher of Las Vegas Hollywood Magazine, Sahouri claims to be a long-time friend of the Jacksons. But his venture with the family has already hit a few snags.
The Jackson Family Foundation hasn't established its not-for-profit status yet, according to the Internal Revenue Service. And though the land deal with Gary said the Foundation would own the land within 30 days, nothing has changed hands. City attorneys say they're waiting for the Foundation to finalize things with the IRS.
Michael Jackson's brother, Randy Jackson, put some heat on the Jackson Family Foundation using his Twitter account this summer, as well.
"Let me be clear," Randy Jackson wrote, "there's no legitimate 'Jackson Family Foundation' that my brothers & sisters are aware of."
All of this feeds doubt about the project, which Gary residents have been hearing about since the 1990s, at least. Former Mayor Thomas Barnes sent a cadre of local leaders to the Jacksons' California home in 1995. They met with the family and tried to lock down a deal for a museum in Gary.
That happened to be the last month of Barnes' term as mayor, though. According to newspaper articles at the time, Mayor-elect Scott King wasn't impressed and pulled the plug.
King then scored the biggest win when it comes to local Jackson mania. Michael Jackson paid his last known visit to Gary in 2003 and joined King for a City Hall press conference. King said the city would build a Michael J. Jackson Performing Arts Center downtown, and he even convinced Michael Jackson to sign a letter endorsing the idea for the cameras.
The singer's actual comments avoided the topic, though.
"Thank you for this wonderful, magical day that I'll never forget for the rest of my life," Michael Jackson said.
He took no questions.
The project stalled again as Jackson successfully fought criminal child molestation charges. Then, in July 2008, Joe Jackson came back to town to talk with Clay, the new mayor. The men said they would resurrect plans for a Jackson Family museum. But even then, permission from the Jacksons' children seemed an afterthought for the patriarch.
"I'm Joe Jackson," he told the Post-Tribune. "I don't need them to approve anything."
Incidentally, that wasn't the first meeting between Clay and Joe Jackson. Decades ago, before the Jackson 5 hit it big, the group known as the Jackson Brothers would play in local clubs around Gary and Chicago. One was Viscounts, where Clay said he helped organize charity events.
"The only way you could get the Jackson Brothers to sing at your charity affair," Clay said, "you had to see Joe Jackson."
Now Clay says he has a healthy respect for the singers' father. Not only did Jackson raise a fabulously successful family of entertainers, Clay says, but he kept his nine children out of trouble while raising them in Gary.
"You've got to respect that," Clay said.
This is it, for Clay
The Jackson estate has been silent on the Gary project since it issued its statement in June. The executors might be waiting to see if the Jackson Family Center moves forward or collapses on its own.
The ambitious endeavor has been proposed at an especially perilous time. Voters here will decide next year if Clay should keep his job. It could become a local referendum on the project.
Clay won his first popular vote as mayor in 2007. At the time, it was apparent money trouble was on the way for Gary. Since then things have only gotten worse. There's plenty of blame to go around, but many voters focus their anger on Clay. They'll have a chance to express it on the ballot in May.
Asked if the Jackson Family Center hangs in the balance, Clay is true to form.
"I will be re-elected," Clay said, "so that won't be an issue."
Still, the situation can be compared to the 1995 disconnect between Mayor Barnes and Mayor-elect King. One major candidate promising to challenge Clay, Ragen Hatcher, has little praise for the Jackson Family Center. She's especially critical of Clay's land deal with the family.
"All it is, is us giving more valuable city resources away," Hatcher said.
The Jacksons are easily Gary's most famous family, but the Hatcher name might also be familiar. Her father, Richard Gordon Hatcher, led Gary as mayor for two decades starting in 1968, when he became one of the first black mayors of a major American city. Ragen Hatcher wants to become Gary's first female executive.
Pursuing a Jackson project is now a mayoral tradition in Gary, but Hatcher is lukewarm to the idea, at best. She said she'd want to examine any proposal to figure how it'd be paid for and if it'd be successful.
Clay, meanwhile, sees a private developer finally willing to build in a city long starved for economic progress. He says he's not worried Gary will be caught up in the bickering between the Jackson Foundation and the Jackson estate, either. He points to the letter signed by Mayor King and Michael Jackson as proof the singer wanted to leave a legacy near 2300 Jackson.
"It's about making Michael Jackson's dream come true," Clay said.
Jon Seidel covers Gary City Hall for the Post-Tribune of Northwest Indiana.
- Jackson Family Foundation coordination director Dina Hall is careful to note that this rendering of the proposed Family Center is part of "a conceptual, preliminary presentation," and that "the final design and location on the property [are] to be determined on a later date." Copyright Jackson Family Foundation.
A. residential complex
B. Jackson Family Museum and Cultural Center
C. Michael Jackson Performing Arts & Culture Center and Concert Hall and Michael Jackson Memorial Pavilion
D. Jackson Family Conference Center
E. pedestrian concourse
F. elevated rail system and terminal
G. "the first of two world-class hotels"
H. "first-of-its-kind Ecological (sic) Designed World Class Golf Course"