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Published: Monday, 2/4/2008

Think regionally, not provincially, about economic issues

I CAME away from last Monday's downtown Rotary Club meeting, which was all about the regional economy, business growth, and what's in store for the future, not sure if the glass is half full or half empty. Our region has so much going for it - and so much working against it.

This was one of those programs the downtown Rotarians occasionally present in which club officers dispense with most of the normal housekeeping announcements and devote 45 or 50 minutes to exploring a topic on everyone's minds, and these days, few topics occupy our minds more than the state of the local and regional economy.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a member of the downtown Rotary and was asked to moderate the panel discussion. But I was a peripheral player in this event. The stars were the three panelists. They were Tom Blaha, executive director of the Wood County Economic Development Commission; James Hartung, president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, and Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop.

I've been involved with panel discussions in the past. Some were good and some were not. This one was good.

As moderator, I didn't have the opportunity to take notes, so I'll be cautious in reconstructing direct quotes, but I was struck by the candor of the participants. Nobody tried to suggest that everything is peaches and cream. To the contrary there was an acknowledgment that Lucas and Wood counties need to do a lot better job of working together if this region's economic fortunes are to turn around.

All three gentlemen agreed that the decision of Bass Pro to locate a new superstore in northern Wood County along I-75 was a win for the region, not just for Wood County. But how well I remember the spirited competition between Toledo and Wood County to land Bass Pro in the first place. Toledo and Mayor Carty Finkbeiner wanted it for the Marina District; Wood County wanted it for the Golden Triangle area.

From my perspective, both won.

That's always been a troublesome phenomenon for me. Sometimes the Maumee River might as well be a concrete wall dividing Lucas and Wood counties. I would argue that when Chrysler announced recently that it would invest $28 million in its machining plant in Perrysburg Township, that was good news for every citizen of Toledo. Similarly, news of recent layoffs at the plant affects us all. The prospect that Chrysler could pull the plug completely when current union contracts expire in 2011 would be a devastating blow to our manufacturing economy - on both sides of the river.

In my opinion, the same is true of the state line. Ohio and Michigan put together teams whose job it is to lure new industry and new jobs to their respective states, and while that's fine, I consider a new plant in Monroe County just as much a victory for Ohio as it is for Michigan.

In that regard, the Rotary panelists all seemed to agree that while manufacturing has been the bedrock of our regional economy for more than a century, we'd better reinvent ourselves if we want to survive. That means high tech, and it means transportation.

Mr. Hartung was candid with his comments about Toledo Express Airport. Asked if the disappointing air passenger numbers are likely to remain stagnant or decline still further, he was pessimistic about a turnaround, acknowledging that Express may be "forever cursed" by its proximity to Detroit and Metro Airport, where yet another new terminal will open in September, luring Toledo area travelers north.

But Toledo's strategic location means it can become even more of a cargo and freight hub, by air, rail, and boat, he noted.

And why not? Toledo is within 600 miles of 60 percent of the U.S. population and 50 percent of the population of Canada. Taking that one step further, Toledo is within a day's drive of 80 percent of America's corporate headquarters, which means business here has quick access to most major U.S. markets.

If there was discord among the panelists, it had to do with Commissioner Konop's desire to see the Lucas County Improvement Corp. either reconstitute itself or go away. So far his is the only vote on the county commission to end county financial support for the LCIC, which he bluntly told the Rotarians has had a failure of leadership and performance. The City of Toledo is already pulling back its financial support for the agency, blaming budget problems. However, Mr. Hartung defended the LCIC, admitting it needs to "improve its product" but that there is no point in "throwing out the baby with the bath water."

All three agreed that economic development is slow, often frustrating work, and that anybody hoping for "instant gratification," as Mr. Hartung put it, will be disappointed. That seems obvious as Toledoans ponder the fate of North Towne and Southwyck and read about unemployment and foreclosure rates that outpace many other areas.

I have a simple formula for Lucas, Wood, Fulton, and Ottawa counties in Ohio and Monroe and Lenawee counties in Michigan:

Stop thinking provincially and start thinking regionally.

Take full advantage of the intersection of I-75 and I-80-90, or "Main Street and Main Street," as the CEO of Bass Pro describes it. Consider the Maumee River just one more busy thoroughfare between two neighborhoods that need each other. And make the state line as invisible in economic development efforts as it already is in fact. Ohio's Ted Strickland and Michigan's Jennifer Granholm are both Democratic governors. They should be working much more closely for the mutual benefit of both states.

Rivalries are nice in football - Go Bucks! Go Blue! - but something even more important is at stake.



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