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Published: 12/10/2004

Growth partnership seeks to go private

BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

The Regional Growth Partnership wants to free itself from the shackles of taxpayer funding and become a private agency, its leaders said yesterday.

The agency, charged with creating jobs in northwest Ohio, has become the whipping boy for an economic development system that most agree has failed to produce enough jobs over the past decade.

Growth partnership and other economic development officials who attended yesterday's special meeting of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority's board of directors said the growth partnership has done more than many realize and now has 64 projects in the pipeline.

The port authority collects a 0.4-mill port levy that helps fund the growth partnership.

Bill Brennan, chairman of the growth partnership board, said his agency needs to transform to a privately funded organization governed by a private board because when a company considers relocation, the corporate players want to deal with local officials who have corporate experience.

The corporate players also worry about confidentiality and feel more comfortable out of the public eye, he said.

"It's our experience they don't want to talk to a public entity," he said. "We believe strongly that economic development must be led by the private sector."

As it stands now, the growth partnership uses taxpayer dollars and is governed by a public board. Criticism of the agency has increased in recent years because of a consistently poor national ranking for the Toledo area in job growth. That showing has prompted leaders to rethink everything, including the future of the growth partnership.

As part of the process, the city of Toledo and Lucas County are considering merging their economic development departments and have suggested pulling the growth partnership into the new organization, which would be run by a board with a private sector leader, Toledo Mayor Jack Ford said.

The port board members plan to decide on the growth partnership's future at its next meeting Dec. 16. At issue for them is how to spend the $2.5 million raised by the levy.

The port authority board gives about $1.35 million to the growth partnership. The agency requested $1 million for next year so it can operate while it raises private dollars to become self-sufficient. "That's our challenge," Mr. Brennan said.

Port board members said they would keep a pledge to provide the growth partnership with $350,000 for neighborhood grants. Port board member Bruce Baumhower said he would support continuing funding for six months. Others board members agreed.

At the meeting, Mr. Ford and Lucas County Commissioner Tina Skeldon Wozniak presented their plan to merge the city and county economic development departments within 120 days. A combined agency could marshal up to $5 million in resources.

Pete Gerken, a Toledo councilman who will take a Lucas County commissioner's seat next month, said if the growth partnership became private, the question of whether to include it in the new city/county agency would be moot. But how to spend the $2.5 million in port levy money would still need to be resolved.

"The only question is who has the checkbook," Mr. Baumhower said.

The discussion yesterday seemed to veer toward creating a three-part economic development system. Former Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner and other port board members said:

w●A new private growth partnership would focus on recruiting industry and building ties to the university system.

w●A combined city/county economic development agency would work to provide tax incentives, utility infrastructure, and other services governments can use to woo businesses.

w●The port authority would use the $2.5 million in levy money to clean up industrial land and to maintain and improve the seaport, airports, and the train station, assets it currently operates.

The three parts would work together.

Maumee Mayor Tim Wagener told the port board that the growth partnership has played an integral role in almost every new job brought to the area.

The growth partnership bridges the bureaucratic gaps throughout the region when an industry is trying to find a site, Mr. Wagener said. The growth partnership was integral in the opening of the Dana Corp. technical center in Maumee, he said.

Mr. Wagener said local officials need to think more as a region and said the growth partnership was key. He said Toledo has blamed Maumee for "stealing jobs" for its Arrowhead Park.

But it's Toledo's responsibility to improve its infrastructure and services instead of criticizing other cities that offer more, he said.

"We eat our own young," he said, referring to a lack of regional cooperation. "[Companies] came to Arrowhead for the infrastructure, the services, because the police arrive on the scene when a little alarm goes off. They didn't come for $20,000 in [tax incentives]. My population in Maumee doubles during the day [because of the workers]."

Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick

at: ckirkpatrick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6077.



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