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Published: Saturday, 2/16/2002

Downtown goes to bat

BY ROBIN ERB
BLADE STAFF WRITER
On warm summer nights, Fifth Third Field will light up downtown Toledo. The finishing touches are being put on the park. The Mud Hens begin their first season at the park on April 9. On warm summer nights, Fifth Third Field will light up downtown Toledo. The finishing touches are being put on the park. The Mud Hens begin their first season at the park on April 9.
BLADE PHOTO / MORRISON Enlarge

It is 9 a.m. on a Friday in downtown Toledo.

The smell of freshly brewed coffee sweeps through Sufficient Grounds as bleary-eyed workers snag the last of the poppy seed muffins before disappearing into the stream of commuters on the sidewalk outside.

Deb and David Whipple sit at the window counter, watching the downtown wake up — both for this particular workday and for the future.

"There was this big surge a while ago to move to the suburbs, get out of Toledo and downtown,“ says Mr. Whipple, a cable splicer for Ameritech and a life-long Toledoan. "It went quiet in downtown for a while, and after 5 o'clock it was dead. But you can see big changes now all over."

"People," Mrs. Whipple agreed, sipping her mug of French vanilla, "are interested in downtown again. It's coming back."

Eric Hillenbrand, left, and his business partner, James Zaleski, have refurbished a dozen downtown buildings, including Diva restaurant. Eric Hillenbrand, left, and his business partner, James Zaleski, have refurbished a dozen downtown buildings, including Diva restaurant.
Enlarge

Indeed, what a difference a decade has made.

Stand just about anywhere in downtown, close your eyes, and spin. Wherever you stop, you'll most likely see a restaurant, store, or office ushered in by the booming economy of the 1990s, a renewed interest in local history and architecture, and — as some credit begrudgingly — by former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner.

Emerging from what once was a red light district are fresh, red bricks and blue-gray steel beams — the $39 million Fifth Third Field, which this spring opens as the new home for the Toledo Mud Hens.

Across the river, a $175 million Marina District, which promises restaurants, a new sports arena, apartments, retail shopping, and a movie theater will stretch from the Martin Luther King, Jr., Bridge to I-280 and replace an industrial corridor and the abandoned Toledo Edison Acme coal-fired electric plant.

Rising from a clutter of what were crumbling facades littering the warehouse district and uptown are specialty boutiques, antique shops, and an art gallery. Filling in what used to be dark, empty store windows are offices, lunchtime diners, and upscale eateries and nightclubs open late into the evening.

Glitzy and welcoming lights now shine from the once-cold and empty Valentine Theatre.

A larger collection, a rare-book room, banks of computers, a soaring glass-enclosed winter garden, and store cafe now fill the renovated and greatly expanded Main Library.

Hulking, abandoned buildings like the LaSalle building and the Hillcrest hotel have been spiffed up or completely redone and filled with first-time downtown dwellers. The former Portside Marketplace, the downtown's black eye at the beginning of the 1990s, now packs in children most days in its Center of Science and Industry.

Connecting these things are the smaller touches: Crosswalks have been reconfigured with decorative paving bricks. There's twinkling lights draping the trees in the winter. Flowers in the summer.

"It's coming back," says Sue Armstrong, marketing director for the design firm, The Collaborative, Inc. on Madison Avenue. "Downtown has turned the corner."

She and others note the colorful mix of multimillion dollar, tax-funded projects that are reshaping the skyline while small boutiques are filling in the store fronts in between.

It is a juxtaposition of national marketing icons, such as McDonald's, and local mom-and-pop shops, they say. It's a blending of the eclectic and the ordinary.

Local developer Eric Hillenbrand says that's precisely what will make downtown Toledo work — this time for good.

In the chilly mid-morning sunshine, Mr. Hillenbrand is taking measurements of a window sill on Adams Street.

Over the past 12 years, Mr. Hillenbrand's firm, Hillenbrand/Zaleski has refurbished a dozen downtown buildings. This latest endeavor, the 20,000-square-foot former Independent Stove building, now houses Alex Hamilton's, a fine-to-casual eatery and scotch-and-wine bar that opened in December.

Recently, Hillenbrand's/Zaleski art gallery, 20 North Gallery, unveiled its latest exhibit, a Congolese artist who creates copper relief wall art. Despite a nasty ice storm, more than 250 appeared for the opening, migrating after the show for late night drinks and salmon and asparagus hors d'oeuvres at Diva restaurant, another of Hillenbrand/Zaleski's endeavors.

The art gallery sits near the new Mud Hens stadium; and Diva, near McDonald's.

"It's this dichotomy of having an art gallery next to a baseball field or a dinner restaurant next to a hot-dog stand," he says, as he stands in the middle of the red brick building that this day is stuffed with lumber, buckets of sealant, and power tools. "It's this mix of things that people will find interesting and that will make downtown work."

Frank Kass believes it.

He's the Columbus developer of the proposed Marina District - just down the street from what used to be a mostly ignored International Park. But The Docks, a handful of restaurants, now packs in thousands of pedestrians, boaters, and diners each week.

Mr. Kass concedes he does not want to be a pioneer; he does not want to take the risks on a town with a shaky future.

"Pioneers get arrows in their backs," he says.

But Toledo has stabilized, he says, with its downtown as its anchor.

"We think it's viable. It's compelling," he says. Though his project will be a "lynchpin" to its comeback, he says, "We will build upon what is happening already."

That's the stuff that excites Ron Sparks about downtown.

The retired Libbey-Owens-Ford manager this midafternoon is milking a mineral water and waiting for his wife, a city worker. He is also remembering the 1950s - days when he and his siblings dressed up to accompany their father downtown so he could pay bills and do family errands at Tiedtke's and smaller, specialty shops.

Those days are past, he now he is looking for other reasons to come downtown in the hours outside of 9 to 5. The Mud Hens games will do that.

Carty Finkbeiner gave the downtown a blueprint vision on which it now can build, he says. "I think people who gave up a long time ago on downtown will give it another look now."

Martin Kniser agrees. Six years ago, he moved his Port Lawrence Antiques business from its longtime home on Sylvania's Main Street to Toledo's Monroe Street and an 1880s Flemish-style store front.

He says he has never regretted the decision. The move gave him more space, better access to out-of-city traffic, and, most importantly, a more profitable bottom line.

"Business has been terrific," he says as the afternoon sun casts shadows among his organized clutter of stained-glass windows, clocks, and circus signs.

"It's great to have all these offices going in, but it's the other things, things like retail and restaurants and the Mud Hens stadium, that bring people in after 5," he adds.

While some see empty store fronts, people such as Mr. Kniser and Mr. Hillenbrand see reasonably priced opportunity.

"It's like a clean slate, an open palate," Mr. Hillenbrand said.



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