Large empty lot along East Toledo’s riverfront contributes a powerful symbol to this year’s city mayoral debate. The Marina District, for better and worse, reflects Mayor Mike Bell’s approach to economic development. So it’s important that voters see the project whole, discounting the self-serving spin that both the mayor and his critics apply to it.
For years, city officials have touted the Marina site as ripe for renewal — a key to job creation and economic growth. Yet even though taxpayers have been assessed $43 million to clean up industrial pollution at the site and improve its infrastructure, the project has displayed more false starts than genuine progress.
More than two years have elapsed since the Bell administration sold 69 acres of Marina District property for $3.8 million to a Chinese-owned investment firm, Dashing Pacific Group Ltd. The company’s principals and their U.S. representatives have spoken of creating a multiuse project worth as much as $300 million, which would include residential, retail, office, and entertainment space.
Since then, though, the site has lain mostly fallow. Project spokesmen say the city’s still-sluggish economy has impeded progress, but insist the investors remain committed to development. The mayor notes that the investors have not sought tax breaks or other incentives.
At a recent campaign debate, Mr. Bell offered his standard defense of the project. “If Dashing Pacific had not purchased that land,” he said, “it would still be sitting there, wind blowing through it, and we would not be collecting the taxes that are helping our county.”
This assertion is largely speculative. The Marina District property has been off the market since the city sold it to Dashing. No one can say whether another investor, foreign or domestic, would have acquired the land had it been available, and acted more quickly to develop it.
The Dashing-or-nothing choice posed by the mayor is at least open to question. And the excessive secrecy Mr. Bell has maintained about the project and its investors has done nothing to enhance public confidence.
Yet many of Mayor Bell’s detractors have made equally dubious claims about the Marina District. They have used the project’s setbacks to condemn the mayor’s overall strategy of seeking international investment in Toledo, sometimes in the crudest nativist terms.
That’s hardly helpful to a city that can use every bit of economic support it can attract from any reputable source. Mayor Bell deserves credit for building ties to nontraditional investors that offer the promise of productive business attraction and job creation.
Others have sought to impose tight restrictions on the Marina District project, such as dictating whom the private developers must employ as contractors and workers. Mr. Bell’s challenger, Councilman D. Michael Collins, asserts the mayor has not done enough to ensure that the project would give preference to local interests, however defined.
The Dashing Pacific deal enables the city to buy back the Marina District land at its sale price if the investors fail to develop it within five years. That period is nearly half over, and complaints about the lack of activity are valid.
Still, the Marina District site remains valuable, and what happens to it is vital to the city’s future. It deserves to be a key issue in this mayoral campaign — and to be assessed in the proper context.