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Published: Wednesday, 11/23/2005

Downtown booster was a designer and artist

Lou Anne Mills, 64, an interior designer and artist who was a booster of downtown Toledo - both its architectural heritage and aesthetic possibility - and a sometime public scold to the status quo, died Sunday in the Montefiore Rehabilitation Center, Beachwood, Ohio, from complications of cancer.

She had cancer for more than four years but remained active in her groups and causes until a stroke in September. She had just finished a Toledo history book for children, her daughter, Jennifer, said.

More than a decade before Fifth Third Field, Ms. Mills, of West Toledo, advocated that an arena be built downtown to complement SeaGate Centre. She created the Downtown Arena Consortium to advance the cause.

In the 1980s and into the 1990s, she was founder of at least two incarnations of the Toledo Downtown Design Forum. She was a critic of downtown ugliness and an advocate of saving the Lasalle building, then an abandoned department store.

"Of all the cities I have lived in and traveled through, Toledo is the most poorly groomed and coordinated," Ms. Mills wrote in a 1990 letter to The Blade Readers' Forum.

Rather than despair, she suggested 10 improvements, from cleaning dirty downtown buildings with convention and visitors bureau funds to creating a "dignified design code" and subsidizing street musicians.

She advocated an auto-free, green downtown central park bounded by Adams, Superior, Jackson, and Huron streets.

"She challenged assumptions about buildings and challenged us to rethink our approaches to things," said Michael J. Young, once head of long-range planning for the Toledo-Lucas County Plan Commissions who is now an urban design consultant in San Diego.

"She took us out of our comfort zone, which was really important," Mr. Young said. "She had an incredible sense of humor through it all."

In 1991, she started a contest to select downtown's worst urban design and dubbed it the "Expiring Frog Contest," after Toledo's old nickname of Frogtown.

"She could be refreshingly blunt," Mr. Young said. "She seemed to be in some ways impatient with people who would talk around an issue."

Her daughter said "she just saw that Toledo had all this wonder and beauty, and she hated to see it deteriorate."

Ms. Mills was later active in the Downtown Toledo Community Board and helped found the Civitas Awards, given to those who have made contributions to the downtown.

A success of Ms. Mills' was in persuading Toledo Edison and the city that utility poles downtown be repainted a dark neutral color, "Train Smoke," so the poles blended in.

Born in Huntington, W.Va., she grew up in Toledo and was a graduate of St. Ursula Academy. She received a bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Hawaii. She studied popular culture at Bowling Green State University.

She was formerly an interior designer for Betty Rumpf Interiors and was in charge of graphic design for the architectural firm then called Samborn, Steketee, Otis & Evans. She was later a design consultant and formed a business that made industrial banners.

Surviving are her daughter, Jennifer Mills; son, Justin Mills; mother, Mabel Hoge; and two grandchildren.

There will be no visitation. Memorial services will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday in First Unitarian Church.

The family suggests tributes to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, 3100 West Central Ave., Toledo.

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