As Toledo mayoral candidate Keith Wilkowski tries to battle to the front of an eight-way race in the Sept. 13 primary, his work to help Rossford develop a regional arena and amphitheater is providing his opponents with ammunition.
As part-time law director for the city of Rossford and the Rossford Arena Amphitheater Authority in 1999, Mr. Wilkowski was a key figure in that city's unsuccessful bid to develop a $48 million arena and amphitheater in the Crossroads of America development near I-75 and the Ohio Turnpike.
During a campaign forum last week, Democratic Mayor Jack Ford called Mr. Wilkowski a "hired gun" who had tried to help Rossford at the expense of Toledo.
In interviews with The Blade, city Councilman Rob Ludeman, the endorsed Republican for mayor, said a new arena in Rossford would have hurt Toledo. Democratic candidate Carty Finkbeiner, who was mayor in 1999, called the Rossford move "an attempt to steal professional hockey from Toledo, where it has resided for a lot of decades."
Mr. Wilkowski, a Democrat, makes no apologies for his role in the arena plan. He said his job as Rossford's lawyer was to protect the city and the Rossford Arena Amphitheater Authority.
"I was making sure they got good legal representation. I was not making a judgment about what projects they were able to do," Mr. Wilkowski said, noting he has been hired to represent the city of Toledo as well.
Mr. Wilkowski served as Toledo's law director from 1990 to 1994, and since then has been retained by Toledo, Rossford, and other municipalities to handle various municipal legal issues. He became Rossford's law director in 1997. An elected Toledo school board member and Lucas County commission-er in the 1980s, Mr. Wilkowski is now making a bid to replace Mr. Ford as mayor.
Rossford paid Mr. Wilkowski $51,155 last year, according to Rossford Administrator Ed Ciecka. Mr. Wilkowski resigned on June 20 so he could run for mayor of Toledo.
Rossford established an arena amphitheater authority in February, 1999. Despite promises that it was on the verge of selling some $48 million worth of revenue bonds to finance the project, the bonds failed to sell. Construction on the amphitheater was 20 percent complete when work stopped in November, 1999, for lack of funds.
Perrysburg Township later sued Rossford and the RAAA to recover $5 million it loaned to the project. The lawsuit is pending.
Mr. Wilkowski contends he did his job and puts the blame on Stifel Nicolaus, the St. Louis company hired to sell the bonds.
"[The RAAA] got very good legal advice and very bad financial advice," he said.
The top lawyer for Stifel Nicolaus denied that his firm gave bad advice to Rossford or the authority. General counsel David Minnick said the Rossford Arena Amphitheater Authority "jumped the gun" by starting work before the financing was in place.
Mr. Wilkowski said he never told anyone that the financing was a sure thing. He said that as a result of his advice, the city of Rossford is not liable for the debts of the arena authority. He said proof of his caution on behalf of the RAAA is found in the June, 1999, resolution authorizing a $45.6 million construction contract with the Lathrop Co. stipulating that the contract would not be signed until the financing was in place.
If the project had succeeded, it would have rung the death knell for Toledo's ambitions for a new arena and the current facility, according to Tim Gladieux, the owner of the Toledo Sports Arena, who said he is a friend of Mr. Wilkowski.
"In any community only one arena can survive," Mr. Gladieux said. "If Rossford had built the arena, that would have been the arena for the community and that would have been the end of it. Our current arena would have closed by now."
Mr. Wilkowski said Toledo stood to gain from the proposed economic development project. A tax-sharing agreement put in place in 1991 between the two cities assured Toledo 28 percent of the income tax revenue in the Crossroads of America zone.
"I don't think you can have it both ways," Mr. Ford said during a candidate forum last week of Mr. Wilkowski's criticism of economic development in Toledo. "Not too long ago he was trying to lead major economic development to another city."
Mr. Ludeman told The Blade he had welcomed Rossford's plan for an amphitheater, but he didn't support the arena.
"I didn't have a problem with the amphitheater issue because that takes a pretty decent-sized piece of land. The arena part I thought was ridiculous," Mr. Ludeman said. "I think it would have hurt us definitely."
Mr. Finkbeiner said he had helped initiate a discussion between the Detroit Red Wings hockey team and Mr. Gladieux, but that the Detroit team suddenly switched its interest to Rossford.
"If one is interested in leading Toledo, I think citizens have the right to ask the question, 'Have you been consistent in your loyalty to the city you seek to become the mayor of?'● " Mr. Finkbeiner said.
Mr. Wilkowski said Toledo was doing nothing about replacing the aging Toledo Sports Arena - and has done little since then, in his opinion.
"There was no Marina District. There was only a Sports Arena, and no one in Toledo was saying we'd like to build a brand new facility," Mr. Wilkowski said.
If elected mayor, Mr. Wilkowski has said he would back a downtown or Warehouse District location for a new Toledo arena. Mr. Finkbeiner has also said either side of the river would work.
Mr. Ludeman and Mr. Ford have expressed preference for the proposed Marina District location in East Toledo. However, Mr. Ford has said he'll base his final decision on which location is most feasible to finance.
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