Sunday, May 27, 2018
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Cruise control

The lack of cruise-ship stops in Toledo speaks to a larger failure of tourism promotion in the city and region

Toledo will never rival Paris as a tourist magnet, yet our area offers plenty of top-flight attractions that can appeal to visitors as well as locals. But as long as regional and state officials continue to disdain meaningful promotion of tourism, Toledo will remain a flyover — and, it turns out, sail-by — city.

The Blade reported this week that as many as five cruise-line operators expect to offer new Great Lakes voyages next year, after several years of depressed traffic. None of these companies plans to make Toledo — or any other Lake Erie city, including Cleveland — a port of call for these cruises.

The Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority spent big bucks in the 1990s to build a passenger vessel terminal and docking facilities along the Maumee River in East Toledo, in hopes of attracting cruise-ship traffic. But Toledo ceased to be a port of call in the final years of that decade.

Today, the terminal is being converted to house the new National Museum of the Great Lakes, which is set to open next spring. The port authority now spends essentially zero on passenger cruise promotion — not even the few thousand dollars it earmarked annually before the Great Recession for membership in a Great Lakes cruise marketing coalition.

As at Toledo Express Airport, the port authority emphasizes cargo traffic along the river to the virtual exclusion of promoting passenger traffic. But the two types of service aren’t mutually exclusive; to the contrary, each strengthens the other. The authority shouldn’t treat them as a zero-sum game.

The port authority seeks voter renewal next month of a 0.4-mill, five-year property tax. This is an especially opportune time for authority officials to tell local taxpayers what they plan to do to attract visitors to the region, by air and water.

Toledo Mayor Mike Bell’s office and the local convention and visitors bureau agree that the region should pursue cruise-ship traffic — provided, it appears, that someone else takes the lead in that effort. At the very least, the potential impact of cruise-ship tourism on the development of the Marina District should be an element of the mayoral debate in the campaign’s final weeks.

It should equally embarrass state tourism officials that the cruise ships will sail past more than 200 miles of Lake Erie coastline without stopping anywhere in Ohio. Is there truly nothing in the state that the operators think would interest their passengers?

In the interest of priming the pump, the state might even have to consider offering direct subsidies to cruise lines that will dock in Toledo and other Great Lakes port cities. That can’t become a permanent situation, but evidently something conspicuous needs to be done to attract these companies’ attention.

Toledo has other obstacles to tourism promotion: an inadequate number of first-class hotel rooms, a downtown that continues to lose landmarks (most recently the scheduled closure of the Spitzer Building Dec. 1). But such hurdles, whatever challenges they pose, add to the need to attract tourists from outside the region and state.

Building a meaningful tourism infrastructure and market in Toledo will require genuine commitment and cooperation among local and state leaders, in the public and private sectors. The payoff will come in economic growth and increased tax revenue from visitors. But if Toledo doesn’t sell itself, no one else will.

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