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Published: Sunday, 4/24/2011

To save Marina deal, shed more light

BY DAVID KUSHMA
BLADE EDITOR

It's easy to sympathize with — and share — Toledo Mayor Mike Bell’s impatience to slap on a hard hat and stick a shovel in the ground of the Marina District. But as much as the city needs to show progress on its most promising economic development opportunity, it’s still more important to make a good deal than a quick and too-secret one.

The mayor is right to call out City Council members who seek to complicate unnecessarily the proposed sale of most of the Marina site to the two Chinese investors who already have bought The Docks restaurant complex. He’s wrong, though, to suggest that valid questions about the investors should be glossed over to ensure a display of what he calls the community’s “total support” for the deal.

Mr. Bell’s frustration is evident. The Marina site has lain fallow for a dozen years, during the terms of three city mayors and despite the grand plans of a succession of developers.

This month, amid a still-rocky local economy, the Chinese investors said they were ready to start work on a $200 million international village of residential and retail delights. The mayor has developed a warm personal relationship with the would-be buyers.

But after council members tried to attach conditions to the sale, the investors withdrew their purchase offer. The mayor says they are “reassessing” their position. If the deal isn’t dead, it’s at least comatose.

The sale agreement need not mandate the use of union labor on the Marina project, as some council members would do. If the investors have the sophistication to carry off this development, they’ll be smart enough to negotiate a voluntary agreement with area construction unions, especially given the high quality of work the members of these unions do.

Nor should council members try to dictate a timetable for acceptable progress on the project, or the price at which the city could repurchase the land. The strength of the local economy, more than an arbitrary political schedule, will determine how development proceeds. After all the previous delays, the five-year period the investors seek either to develop the Marina property or offer to sell it back to the city seems reasonable.

But the council shouldn’t merely wave through the proposed sale, either. Large and basic questions about the investors still demand a full public airing.

Is $3.8 million enough for the property, even if it was the only bid on the table? If the investors won’t be expected to repay a $2.8 million loan from the state to build a road in the project area, who will?

How solid and stable is the investors’ funding? What are its sources? For that matter, are we even sure that we have the correct names of the investors?

What are the details of the Marina development behind the conceptual drawings? How will the project fit into the East Toledo neighborhood that surrounds it? How many jobs will it create? What guarantees of public access to the riverfront will the investors offer?

Most important, why should Toledo taxpayers feel assured that the investors will do what they say they will do? They have no track record in the United States of designing and completing such a major, comprehensive project. Do they have a record of high-quality development in China or anywhere else? If so, what is it?

Advocates will object that the investors weren’t grilled this way about their purchase of The Docks. But there’s a big difference between taking over an existing development and building a much larger, costlier project from the ground up.

To raise these questions is not to engage in ethnic stereotyping, although it’s regrettably true that an undercurrent of nativism has polluted community discussion of this deal as well as the sale of The Docks. But even with as much credibility as Mayor Bell has earned during his 16 months in office, the most sincere “trust me” is not sufficient here. Neither is a mayoral lecture on the imperatives of global competition.

This is not a transaction between private parties. It is the sale of a valuable public asset. This plan involves 69 acres of prime riverfront property that the city owns and in which taxpayers have invested tens of millions of dollars for pollution cleanup and site improvements.

Neither the investors, their local agents, nor city officials get to decide among themselves how much we are allowed to know about this deal. Citing the secrecy with which business habitually is done in China does not determine how it gets done in Toledo, particularly when public money and property are involved.

A lack of adequate transparency will do more to sour this deal than the most self-serving obstructionism of council members. If Mayor Bell and the other principals want to earn public confidence in this version of the Marina project, they need to take Toledoans more into their confidence.

Because if the price of this deal is official secrecy in Toledo reminiscent of Beijing, it isn’t worth it.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: dkushma@theblade.com



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