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Published: Tuesday, 4/12/2011

Caution on Marina deal

THE prospect that Toledo's Marina District finally will be developed — after more than a dozen years of big talk, no action, and $43 million in taxpayer investment — appears exciting.

But in their eagerness to jump-start the stalled riverfront project, city officials must take care not to sell off a prime public asset too cheaply, or to fail to get the right answers from the virtually unknown investors.

Mayor Mike Bell, like his two predecessors, extols the Marina District along the Maumee River near downtown as the city's best development opportunity. The mayors have talked of using city-owned land there to create a grand, comprehensive project of retail, residential, and commercial activities that would revitalize the east side and bring people and jobs back to Toledo. That vision remains compelling and must be realized.

The two Chinese investors who recently paid $2.15 million for The Docks restaurant and entertainment complex near the Marina District are offering $3.8 million for roughly half of the 125-acre Marina site. The Bell administration wants to accept the offer, claiming it is more than the property's most recently appraised value and more than a previous would-be developer was willing to pay.

City officials note that the investors do not seek tax breaks or other public subsidies. But the city's proceeds from the sale could be lower if it is forced to repay a $2.8 million state loan for site improvements.

In any event, the sale price seems low in the context of previous statements city officials have made about the district's value, and the amount of money the city has spent on environmental cleanup and infrastructure upgrades for the former industrial land.

The amount of money on offer would do little to relieve the city's acute fiscal problems. Such distress, while real, must not become an excuse for giving away the store.

The investors promise to create a $200 million "international village" in the Marina District. They talk of also buying the site of the old Toledo Edison steam plant near the district. They offer to sell the Marina land back to the city if they do not develop it within five years.

Yet if glittering pledges and pretty pictures were all, the Marina District already would have been developed several times over. For all of their evident success with real estate deals in China, as well as their access to ready cash, the investors have no track record of high-quality private development in the United States, especially of waterfront property.

Mayor Bell is basing the deal largely on the personal relationships he has developed with the investors and their American agents, one of whom has a recent history of local business setbacks and adverse court judgments. The city seems to be asking taxpayers to take a lot on faith.

That is especially troubling in light of the lack of transparency about the proposed deal. City officials at first refused to confirm the investors' identities. Questions about their sources of funding and discrepancies even about one of the investor's names remain unresolved.

Any development plan must incorporate community values. The Marina District should embrace, rather than wall itself off from, the struggling East Toledo neighborhood it abuts. The plan should ensure public access to the riverfront — walkers, bicyclists, boaters, and park users, as well as motorists.

At the same time, the debate over the development proposal should not become sidetracked by xenophobic references to the investors' nationality. There may be good reasons to raise questions about this deal. The fact that the would-be buyers are Chinese isn't one of them.

The mayor's office needs to take a deep breath and determine that it is making the best deal it can for city taxpayers — a deal that truly will redeem the promise of the Marina District. And if the administration is reluctant to do so, City Council members will have to take up that task.



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