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Published: Tuesday, 7/25/2006

Despite solution after solution, area economy needs more help

Sometimes a bit of a shock doesn't hurt. And even a big shock, provided it isn't fatal, can prove healthy in the long run.

I speak from experience. Recently, I decided to buy some insurance that I was confident would be the missing piece in a financial plan. But the quotations came in considerably higher than I was prepared for.

The rudeness of the shock forced me to examine other options, which cost me a couple of vacation days doing the homework I should have done in the first place.

I discovered I was trying to insure the wrong risk, cure the wrong problem. The resulting solution probably will be even more expensive than the shocking insurance premium, but it also is likely to be far more effective.

It's pretty much the same for economic development efforts. Cities like Toledo scramble to put together incentives to attract or keep businesses, but even when those work, there's no guarantee the companies will stay forever or that they (or their industries) will even survive.

And cities like Toledo - where hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of local and state subsidies have been granted in the last decade - once again find themselves struggling to gain jobs, fighting a population drain, and beginning to wonder what their real problems are.

Toledoans were rightly jubilant in the mid-1990s when Owens Corning built its $100 million headquarters on the Maumee River downtown. Local and state incentives totaled $90 million.

But that coup didn't prevent OC from going into Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings in 2000 to deal with its billions of dollars in asbestos-injury claims.

And, in fact, Toledo was again in danger of losing OC's headquarters until a deal three years ago that

included a waiver of $18 million in lease fees by the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority.

We're safe, again. For now. Maybe for a long time, if OC successfully emerges from its bankruptcy this year.

However, none of the maneuvers to keep OC worked to entice Owens-Illinois Inc. into keeping its headquarters at One SeaGate downtown. O-I is just about ready to move into its new headquarters in Perrysburg.

So, we solve one problem in our glass industry, and another soon crops up.

Toledoans also had every right to pat themselves on the back in 1997 when state and local incentives of $232 million encouraged Chrysler Corp. to invest $1.2 billion in its Jeep facilities here - bolstered later by additional $2.1 billion investment by the firm's successor, DaimlerChrysler AG.

That saved thousands of local jobs, as did this year's start on a $500 million transmission-plant addition at General Motors Corp.'s Powertrain factory in Toledo.

But none of that effort spared GM and Ford Motor Co. the agony of drastic cutbacks and reorganization to stay competitive with Toyota Motor Corp. and other Japanese auto giants.

The local expansions put bandages on a wounded industry, but can't stop the bleeding.

Many automotive suppliers are struggling too, including Toledo's Dana Corp., which went into Chapter 11 reorganization this year.

Forty years ago, the economic gurus here were talking about the need to diversify the local economy beyond the automotive and glass industries.

For all the talk over the years, there' still not enough diversification.

We find a solution to a problem and blithely think the problem is solved for all time, not realizing we treated only one symptom. Attracting and keeping industry is just a part of what we need to improve the quality of life.

But it's an important part. And Toledo certainly isn't alone. Many cities, especially in this part of the country, are dealing with the same syndromes. For example, Sunday's Cleveland Plain Dealer questioned the effectiveness of that region's three-year-old Team Northwest Ohio, a coalition for economic development.

Stories noted poor efforts at attracting high tech, and few solutions to many problems.

Of course, we deserved to pat ourselves on the back for saving OC's headquarters, the Jeep factory, the Powertrain plant. But with a lot of other worries looming, and a lot of unsolved problems, it's back to the drawing board.



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