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Published: Monday, 4/21/2003

Grachek, Moran look for chance to revive Toledo's District 5

BY FRITZ WENZEL
BLADE POLITICAL WRITER

Norm Mislanti's expression conveyed disgust as he wheeled a rusty shopping cart containing a huge light fixture out of the defunct Food Town grocery store on Secor Road last week.

“This was a nice place. It was only open six years. Sometimes, I think these stores go into business just to go out of business,” said Mr. Mislanti, an equipment liquidator from Dearborn, Mich.

“Somebody in a skyscraper gets a big idea, and this is the result,'' Mr. Mislanti said.

The vacant store represents fresh and unexpected trouble for a struggling commercial area in the heart of sprawling District 5, a City Council ward that spans the northwest corner of Toledo.

The district is at the city's political epicenter this spring, as Democrat Ellen Grachek and Republican Mary Beth Moran compete for a seat - one of 12 on council - in a May 6 special election.

Although Ms. Grachek was appointed to fill the seat in January, both are political newcomers, struggling to learn about the needs of the district and city politics.

The Secor Road store was one of 18 Food Towns closed in a cost-cutting move by the chain's owner, Spartan Stores of Grand Rapids, Mich.

Four of the stores are in District 5, which stretches from the University of Toledo campus to the Michigan line.

“The loss of Food Town was devastating for those neighborhoods,” Ms. Moran said.

Ms. Grachek agreed.

“Those stores being dark is a black eye. It was devastating. I didn't know that was coming. Few people did,” she said. “Fortunately, the stores are in prime commercial areas.

“It's not as if the city failed here. Our job now is to see that there is an opportunity to open up those stores again,” she said.

Rob Shaink manages the Allied Record Exchange in the same Secor Road shopping area where Spartan Foods recently closed one of its Food Town supermarkets. Rob Shaink manages the Allied Record Exchange in the same Secor Road shopping area where Spartan Foods recently closed one of its Food Town supermarkets.
ALLAN DETRICH Enlarge

Meanwhile, merchants in nearby stores are uneasy. They say losing Food Town would mean fewer customers.

Manager Rob Shaink sits inside Allied Record Exchange, a business across the mostly empty parking lot from the closed Food Town.

He has already seen a dramatic reduction in business since the grocery store closed last month.

“It's been a lot slower than it normally was when they were open,” Mr. Shaink said. “It's been down quite a bit, and we have been broken into [burglarized] a lot more.

“There just aren't [shoppers] around anymore after hours since the [Food Town] store is closed down.”

Phil Doan, an employee of the Toledo Nails shop next door, echoed Mr. Shaink as he watched television in a corner of the empty store.

“It seems a lot slower now,'' he said.

The district has other problems, including heavy traffic and flooding.

While the district includes residential neighborhoods, it's also home to the struggling Westgate shopping area and the busy Westfield Shoppingtown Franklin Park mall.

The reborn Miracle Mile shopping center on Laskey Road is part of the district. So are Whitmer and Start high schools, as well as two private schools for girls - St. Ursula Academy on Indian Road and Notre Dame Academy on Sylvania Avenue.

Flooding is particularly bad in the district's northern neighborhoods. But city officials meeting last week with Ms. Grachek and a handful of residents said the new $400 million renovation of the city's wastewater and storm water systems should help alleviate the problem.

City council also agreed last week to spend $400,000 to enclose a 40-foot-wide, eight-foot-deep drainage area - known as the Eisenbraum Ditch - to help alleviate flooding in the Elmhurst neighborhood off Alexis Road.

Ms. Grachek, a 26-year-old law clerk with the Toledo firm of Allotta and Farley Co., was appointed to the seat in January after Tina Skeldon Wozniak left council to become a Lucas County commissioner.

The winner of the special election will hold the seat until the end of the year.

Another election in November will determine the seat's occupant for the next four years.

Ms. Grachek, 26, is a 2002 graduate from the University of Toledo College of Law.

She failed in her first attempt to pass the Ohio Bar examination last summer. She took the test a second time earlier this year and is awaiting the outcome.

Ms. Moran, 39, is a 1986 graduate of Hillsdale College in Michigan, who, like Ms. Grachek, went to law school at UT.

A member of the bar for 13 years, she practices family law, working out of a downtown office with her father, Peter, who has had a law practice in Toledo since the early 1950s.

Ms. Grachek and Ms. Moran agreed that citizens appear to want the six district councilmen to make sure they pay attention to the basics, while the six at-large council members spend more time on bigger city issues.

“Citizens want basic city services. They want their streets paved and plowed, their trash and leaves picked up, and their sidewalks fixed when they need it. But I can tell you, looking around the district - it's dirty out there,” Ms. Moran said.

In addition to “last year's leaves in many places,” Ms. Moran said, “it is filthy. There is trash.”

The basics are “not necessarily the exciting stuff, but that's what people expect the most,” Ms. Grachek said, adding that she continues to get calls from constituents who want the leaves picked up.

“It's a big job,” she said. “In answering all these calls, I share my frustration with the [city Streets, Bridges, and Harbor] department, and tell them that I am getting a lot of complaints here,” Ms. Grachek said.

“Our city crews work hard. That said, there shouldn't be leaves on the streets in April,” she said.

Judging by past elections, the district's 33,000 registered voters tend to support Democrats more than Republicans. In the 10 years since it was created as part of a dramatic change in the city charter adopted by voters in 1992, the district has always been represented by a Democrat.

Betty Shultz won the seat in 1993, and when she moved to an at-large seat on council in 1997, Ms. Wozniak took over.

In the 2000 presidential election, the district favored Democrat Al Gore over Republican George W. Bush by a 55-45 margin.

But in a special election where voter turnout is expected to be much lower than for a presidential contest, Ms. Grachek said anything could happen.

With all the problems in the world, the city, and the district, “the first thing is to get people to recognize that there even is an election,” she said.



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