Poor Louis Escobar. The defiant Toledo council president got hammered last week for comparing a bank's inflexible demands to terrorism. People clucked about his reported remarks, while neglecting the meaning of what he said.
Granted, Mr. Escobar might have phrased it better - which was my point, back in the fall, when he told me: "Are [Fifth Third Bank execs] really threatening to leave if we don't give them a surface parking lot? That's called terrorism."
After quoting him, I allowed that Mr. Escobar probably meant " 'extortion,' not 'terrorism,' but the point's the same, and it's a good one" - just as true then as now.
Fifth Third IS strong-arming us. There's no other way to describe the maneuvers of a large business threatening to whisk downtown jobs away to the 'burbs - unless, that is, the city grants a demolition waiver, in complete violation of zoning.
Oh, and before I forget: I owe Jack Ford a public apology. Last fall, I groused that our "elegant city" mayor was indifferent to the prospect of more downtown demolition pockmarks. But the council prez set me straight: "In November, Jack called [bank headquarters in] Cincinnati and said if we can't get the time to [counter-propose], then maybe Jack would have to reconsider where [city] money goes."
Turns out the bid for Toledo's banking contract was won by Fifth Third. That means, Mr. Escobar said, "all our money goes through them - at least a couple of hundred million. All our accounts payable, our payroll, our investment money. Everything."
Hey, one good threat deserves another. But while the mayor seemed to temporarily stall bank demands, "something apparently deteriorated between then and now," said Mr. Escobar.
We're back to fist-shaking and job threats.
But this is even more absurd when you consider the city's offer to build a nearby parking garage. Mr. Escobar points out this would serve downtown's overall development needs (not just the bank's), but also give private, bank-only access to a secured loading zone.
Granted, the council prez said, the city has dithered, failing even to forward a May parking study to council until September; if Fifth Third's patience is thinning, it's with reason. Still, it would be refreshing to see the bank think not only of its own desires, but also the city's needs - especially when both are easily met.
Mr. Escobar wants a public hearing because he wants some on-the-record answers. If it's true, for example, that the bank's insurer demands a secured loading zone, he wonders why there's no documentation for that claim.
More importantly, he said, he wants it on the record that the bank won't move the jobs in question to Sylvania even if the city gives in to its parking tantrum.
Sigh. Yes, this ruckus is about preserving the urban core (or what's left of it).
But it's also about the economic bullying that cities endure when large businesses make diva demands, while small businesses are left to fend for themselves.