Jackson museum complex aims to make his hometown a thriller

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The Independent Online

Nearly a year after Michael Jackson's death, the pop star's father vowed Wednesday to transform their hometown with a 300-million-dollar complex dedicated to the Jackson family's musical legacy.

Joe Jackson, the controversial patriarch who has said his son is "worth more dead than when he was alive," told reporters that he is trying to fulfill his son's wishes by bringing the tourism destination and memorial to Gary, Indiana.

"I'm just carrying out his legacy," Jackson said.

"He wanted to come back here, and we're bringing him back and we're coming back with something as well."

Michael Jackson, who died June 25 at his rented Los Angeles mansion after an overdose of powerful prescription drugs, last visited Gary in 2003. He told residents of the gritty industrial town that he hoped one day to see a performing arts center built there in his honor.

His father is planning a far more elaborate "Jackson Family Center" which would include two hotels, a conference center, restaurants, shops, a golf course, apartments, a train and bus terminal, recording and television studios, a movie theater, nightclubs, a museum and a concert hall.

Gary Mayor Rudy Clay hailed the project as a lifeline for the dying steel town on the outskirts of Chicago which suffers from deep poverty and long-term unemployment.

"Sometimes it's hard to hope," Clay said at a press conference in Gary's aging convention center.

"But right now, hope is alive."

The for-profit complex will draw 500,000-750,000 visitors a year, create thousands of jobs and have an annual economic impact of 100 to 150 million dollars, Clay said.

A proposal by the Jackson Development and Marketing Corporation insisted that "we have the funding in place to make this project a reality" and vowed to provide funding for the "beautification" of Gary's downtown area.

The city could use the help. And the Jacksons appear to be its only hope.

Crumbling, boarded up buildings loom over empty downtown streets.

A yellow banner declaring "Jackson 5 Forever!" hangs on the empty marquee of a 50s-era movie theater with a facade recalling Gary's more prosperous days.

The thousands of fans who make a pilgrimage to the modest Jackson family home here drive past rotting houses and overgrown lots and then drive swiftly back out of town.

Unlike Elvis Presley's Graceland, which has built a major tourism site in the center of a downtrodden Memphis neighborhood, there are no shops or restaurants nearby to tempt them to stay.

"Gary falls into the classic pattern of Detroit as an American ghost town where the industry dried up and nothing replaced it," said Neil Steinberg, a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times who is working on a book about Gary.

"It took a certain agility for towns like St. Louis to move from dying industries to something else. Gary never did that, in part due to the buffoonish leadership it's always had."

Mayor Clay acknowledged that Gary's residents have suffered through a lot of broken promises, but he insisted Wednesday that this time things will be different and that the project is "definitely going to happen."

"What happens is, people sometimes they're down so long and when they're up they don't believe they're really up, they still think they're down," he said.

"We're up in Gary. Our spirits are up. Our goals are up. We're progressing here."

Not everyone attending the meeting was convinced.

Community activist Natalie Amons was worried by the lack of solid answers as to what the project will entail, and who will pay for it.

"Nobody's saying don't bring it," she told AFP. "The jury, to me, is still out. I'm a skeptic."

Jackson Family Foundation president Simon Sahouri said the project is still at the "conceptual" phase and cautioned that it will take "a few years to accomplish."

"This is only drawings," he said. "We have a lot of work to do."