A few months ago, after one of the mayoral debates, I was talking with some folks outside the venue. The topic was a recurrent one: Why, with all its many assets, is Toledo not better perceived, both by itself and by the outside world?
Someone said something that has been lodged in my mind since: “We just need one boost, one catalyst, one match to light the bonfire.”
This week, with the announcement of ProMedica moving 700 people downtown to the steam plant and the Key Bank building adjacent to it, the bonfire has been lit.
This is a major game changer for Toledo. It is a moment of tremendous hope and possibility.
It is also a move back to the future. Downtown was once the heart of Toledo, and now it can be again. Think of what those 700 people will do for restaurants, night life, and the arts community.
This will also boost downtown residential living, which was already on the rise. It will feed other projects, like the expansion of the Mud Hens and Mudville. It will help to save some historic buildings for residential or mixed use. We will have, in the terms of the times, a “tipping point” and “synergy.”
We are also going back to the future in terms of leadership.
When you think of who and what built Toledo, you think of the great Toledo names — the Stranahans and Edward Drummond Libby and his wife, Florence Scott Libbey, for example.
But there was also, in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, a group of corporate leaders deeply committed to downtown Toledo. Perhaps the most prominent of this cadre were Edwin Dodd, who ran Owens-Illinois, George Haigh of Trustcorp, and Paul Block, Jr., co-publisher of The Blade. They built the SeaGate Centre, One SeaGate, and the beautiful river walk.
Randy Oostra of ProMedica is a return to that sort of corporate leader, after years of withdrawal by apparently anonymous and indifferent faces. Mr. Oostra believes in the city and cares about its problems and possibilities. He is a big part of almost every charitable and humanitarian effort in Toledo. He didn't have to pursue this $40 million dollar dream of downtown development. ProMedica was doing just fine. But he says he wants the city to be vibrant and that the region's future will rise or fall on this vibrancy.
The truth is, two or three real leaders with economic clout can change things overnight. That is Toledo's past and it is its future. We have been blessed. And we are lucky today to have corporate leaders like Mr. Oostra, James Hoffman of KeyBank, a key partner in this venture, and Al Stroucken of O-I. He is spearheading Aspire, the coalition of service providers and business leaders now tackling schools and poverty. These people, and others like them in our corporate elite, provide the spark. What has been missing for so long is not a building, but a rational, responsible, and committed business elite.
And now we can get on with the business of renewing our city and rebuilding our downtown. Our new economy will be based not only on manufacturing, but health care and education.
There will be bumps in the redevelopment road — parking, state funding, regulation, change itself. But it will happen. Downtown will be back. It will not be as it was of old. In some ways, it will be better.
Keith C. Burris is a columnist for The Blade.
Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org or 419-724-6266.