Friday, Apr 20, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

David Kushma

Telling Toledo’s story, to others and ourselves

The effort to brand Toledo — to tell our community’s story to potential employers, residents, investors, students, and tourists, and not least to ourselves — is picking up steam. The results are encouraging.

Amid a dismal economy, local leaders joined last year to launch the five-year branding project. One goal, they conceded, is to define the Toledo region before someone or something else — a city we compete with for jobs and business, a sneering late-night comic — does it in a way we wouldn’t like or even recognize.

It doesn’t mean glossing over this area’s problems. That would be like trying to hide an elephant. But it does mean acquainting others with, and reminding ourselves of, northwest Ohio’s many strengths and amenities.

“As we get up and running, we want the community to begin to get a good understanding of the look and feel and goals” of the branding project, says Joe Napoli, general manager of the Toledo Mud Hens and Toledo Walleye, and a member of the board that is overseeing the project.

“And as people get the flavor of the story we’re trying to tell, we want them to supplement the story with their own stories,” he says. “That’s the most enjoyable part.”

It’s important, too. I continue to be amazed in retrospect at how little I knew about this area before I moved here last year, even though for years I lived right across the state line in suburban Detroit.

My prior lack of knowledge has made the process of discovering this region that much more exciting. But if we don’t beat our own drum, who will?

Over the past year, the brand-building group has quietly been raising money, fashioning the Toledo sales pitch, and trying out promotional strategies. We’re about to see the product.

The branding project defines the Toledo region as not just the four-county metropolitan area, but as a huge chunk of territory that also includes Fremont, Findlay, and Sandusky, and has 1.5 million residents in 220 communities.

The cornerstone of the branding initiative is a Web site that will go online soon. Applications for tablet computers and cell phones will follow, Mr. Napoli says, along with forays into social media.

A draft version I saw of the Web site describes the Toledo region as “the center of the new manufacturing economy.” This economy, the site says, emerges from an “industrial revolution.”

It melds Toledo’s advantages in traditional manufacturing — a talented and experienced workforce, sophisticated transportation and logistics networks, an abundant water supply — with an entrepreneurial, export-driven culture, supported by the region’s universities and colleges. That partnership is building industries in alternative-energy production, advanced materials, and specialty chemicals.

In addition to opportunities for economic development, the site emphasizes the region’s quality of life. That’s reflected in our “affordable housing” — a nice way of saying there’s a lot for sale, cheap — and easy access to recreational activities. It cites our area’s cultural jewels: the zoo, the art museum, the symphony, the ballet.

It mentions brawnier attractions, such as our professional and college sports teams. There are shout-outs for Sauder Village and Cedar Point, the “roller coaster capital of the world.”

The site describes our region’s other advantages: a sophisticated network of health-care resources, extensive utility and telecommunications services, strong faith communities, a healthy respect for diversity in people and neighborhoods.

“This is stuff that makes you proud,” Mr. Napoli says. “Shame on us for not celebrating this — but we will.”

The presentation does a good job of convincing anyone who is willing to be persuaded that Toledo is a great place to be. But I couldn’t help thinking about the threats to our story, just as we’re getting ready to tell it to the world.

The branding effort calls the Toledo region “the water recreation capital of the Midwest.” But how attractive will our “miles upon miles of remarkable Lake Erie shoreline” be when they are slimed with algae, because we decided that keeping the lake clean was too costly or burdensome?

How will “some of the most ecologically distinct environments and wildlife habitats in the United States ... an international destination for bird-watching, fishing, hiking, and the simple pleasure of getting outside” coexist with private drilling on public lands?

How will we maintain our “excellent schools” and “world-class research institutions ... superbly positioned to drive future growth” if we starve them of public resources now? Where will tomorrow’s artists, musicians, and industrial designers come from if we can’t figure out how to keep specialized teachers of these subjects in Toledo’s elementary schools?

And how will we knit together the broad region the branding project covers, when getting even Toledo and its suburbs to cooperate is too often a fraught project, laced with mutual suspicion and us-against-them slogans?

Mr. Napoli acknowledges the challenge.

“Clearly, you want to tell the best possible positive story about the region,” he says. “But you can’t hide the issues we have to overcome. The [Web site] will have news feeds that will talk about what’s going on in the community. We have to strike the right balance.”

It’s vital to tell Toledo’s story well, because it’s a rich and appealing one. But that story can’t merely describe a pleasant place that existed once upon a time. We also have to make tough choices now to ensure we’ll all live happily ever after.

David Kushma is editor of The Blade.

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