Last in a series
Five years after the Great Recession came to Toledo, the city has not recovered the jobs lost when the global financial crisis plowed through the U.S. economy.
But the city is rebounding and having as much or better success than most large cities in Ohio, except Columbus.
Toledo Mayor Mike Bell and his challenger, Councilman D. Michael Collins, dispute whether Mr. Bell’s laissez-faire, regionalist, and big-picture approach to economic development deserves credit for the job growth over his four years in office.
The two candidates go before voters on Tuesday.
Toledo’s jobless rate peaked at 14.4 percent in June, 2009, when an estimated 127,000 people worked in the city, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services.
The city’s economy was battered by the global financial crisis that took hold in 2008, when Wall Street giant Lehman Brothers went bankrupt over the suddenly empty value of mortgage securities once worth billions of dollars.
As 2009 progressed, Toledo’s job market collapsed, and when January, 2010, rolled around — just as former fire Chief Bell took his oath as mayor — Toledo employment plunged to 114,800 jobs, a time of year when employment is typically at its lowest level.
As of August this year — the last month for which numbers are available — employment is up to 120,000.
Mayor Bell cites the difference between the number of jobs in January, 2010, and August, 2013, to claim total growth of 5,200 jobs during his tenure.
But a more apples-to-apples comparison is to examine employment at the same time each year. Comparing August, 2010, when the city’s employment total was 119,300 jobs, with August, 2013, shows a gain of 700 jobs over three years, or just over half of 1 percent.
As weak as that may appear to be, it’s as good as or better than other similar Ohio cities, except for Columbus.
Based only on August numbers over the last four years, Toledo’s growth of 700 jobs — 0.6 percent — since August, 2010, was second-best of Ohio’s six-largest cities. Toledo’s job growth year-to-date compares with 4 percent for the state capital, Columbus; 0.4 percent for Akron; 0.1 percent for Cleveland; zero growth for Cincinnati, and a 1 percent decline in Dayton, according to The Blade’s analysis of data from the Department of Job and Family Services.
Unemployment in Toledo stood at 8.7 percent for August, compared with Columbus, 6.1 percent; Akron, 7.5 percent; Cincinnati, 7.6 percent; Dayton, 9.1 percent; Cleveland, 9.3 percent, and Youngstown, 10.1 percent.
Mayor Bell believes the job growth proves his administration’s policies work. He cites 38 businesses created this year, based on them getting certificates of occupancy — although in some cases, they merely moved to a new location in the city. Thirteen are bars or restaurants; 19, retail outlets, and five, professional offices. One is a school: Horizon Science Academy, 630 S. Reynolds Rd.
“I think that my pro-business initiatives are working,” he said during a debate last week. “To be able to keep two major companies in town ... and the idea of a company such as Hickory Farms moving back into the city, is a great thing, so I think it’s working in the way it’s supposed to be.”
He said reaching out internationally was part of his attempt to reduce joblessness. He said he is seeking re-election to maintain his economic development policies.
Mr. Collins said the Bell administration has been hands-off — and in the past has fumbled. Mr. Collins cited the hiring of a contractor to develop the former Southwyck Mall site who turned out to have a record of legal and financial woes unknown to the administration and the end to a Cleveland developer’s plan to renovate the Berdan Building in the city’s Warehouse District when the city realized it couldn’t get a needed $10.2 million federal loan.
On top of that, Mr. Collins said, one of the major contributors to Toledo’s job growth, the Hollywood Casino in East Toledo, was in no way a result of Mr. Bell’s influence.
Of the 38 businesses cited by Mr. Bell, Mr. Collins asked, “How many of those new businesses actually employ people where they receive a living wage and benefits?” he asked. “That’s a true barometer of economic development.”
He said his goal is to have “cranes in the sky” — projects under construction.
Below the radar
Mayor Bell plays his economic development cards close to his chest, with the belief it makes potential employers feel more comfortable their plans won’t be exposed prematurely by politicians.
His participation in economic development is so below the radar, he was forced in the last two weeks to distribute a packet of letters proving his administration was a key player in working out incentives to allow Chrysler Group LLC to expand its plant for the new Jeep Cherokee.
Mr. Bell said government intervention can muck things up — a point, ironically, already made by Mr. Collins.
“It’s not hands-off, but I’m not doing the day-to-day stuff,” Mr. Bell said. “We’re moving in the right direction. It takes some time. We’re getting out of the way and letting business do what they need to do. Too often, government gets in the middle of something it doesn’t have a great understanding of and messes it up.”
He found Mr. Collins’ criticism of the type of occupancy permits for the 38 new businesses hypocritical.
“Here is the same gentleman who talks about how we need to be friendly to small business,” Mayor Bell said. “He’s talking out of both sides of his mouth.”
Mr. Collins acknowledged that, while he sees Mr. Bell as too hands-off, some think Mr. Collins is too hands-on, a criticism some made of former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner. “My leadership style is very different from Mayor Finkbeiner. While I will ask those tough questions, I’m not going to interfere with my administrators when they’re moving on their projects,” Mr. Collins said.
He also has campaigned heavily on neighborhood revitalization, the idea that stabilizing neighborhoods helps sustain the city while economic initiatives gradually take root.
A team sport
Mr. Collins and Mr. Bell have similar visions of the role of economic development: a team sport.
Mr. Collins calls his by the term created by former University of Toledo President Dan Johnson, the “meta plan,” which would put all existing agencies “under one roof.”
He wants Mr. Johnson to participate in his transition, if he’s elected.
Mr. Bell says the agencies are already “in the same room.” That room is provided by the Toledo Regional Chamber of Commerce.
According to Lucas County Commissioner Peter Gerken, Mr. Bell’s team has played its part in a regional economic strategy that seems to be hitting its stride.
Toledo participates in a monthly meeting with other local development agencies: the Regional Growth Partnership, the Chamber, the Lucas County Economic Development Corp., the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, and the University of Toledo, Mr. Gerken said. The city contributed $150,000 this year to the economic development corporation for business outreach in Toledo.
Representatives of those groups come together monthly for a lunch meeting, usually hosted by the chamber. Attendance by the city declined in Mr. Bell’s first three years, from 11 of 12 meetings in 2010, to nine of 12 meetings in 2011, and eight out of 11 meetings in 2012. In 2013, a city representative, usually Deputy Mayor Paul Syring, has attended all eight meetings.
Mr. Gerken said the lunches have become more important in the last year, lengthening to two hours to review each other’s projects. “So it’s taking some time. The Bell administration has been a collaborative partner. They have been a partner on correcting the infrastructure ills that put us underwater four or five years ago — warehouses, logisticals,” he said.