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Published: Friday, 1/5/2001

Marina project depends on obtaining land

BY JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Columbus developer Frank Kass has wowed local officials with plans for a 125-acre entertainment complex to revitalize East Toledo's riverfront - and now he wants the chance to resurrect a riverfront site a mile downstream.

In the process, a 46-acre parcel that once housed a pig iron plant could again provide jobs - 16 years after the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority bought the property to house a steel mill that was never built.

But the plan has several hurdles to clear - chief among them, reaching a deal with the company leasing the space from the port authority: Heidtman Steel Products, Inc.

Mr. Kass said he wants the port authority this month to consider letting him take over a lease of the mostly vacant parcel between Front Street and the Maumee River.

Mr. Kass said he needs part of the Heidtman property to relocate the Geo. Gradel Co., a construction firm that now sits where Mr. Kass wants to build part of the entertainment complex, dubbed the Marina District.

“Without moving him, there is no Marina District. So it's essential,” Mr. Kass said.

Gradel would be on the southwest quarter of the property. The rest, Mr. Kass said, would be developed as a joint venture by his firm - Continental Real Estate Companies - and Nationwide Realty Investors, the development arm of Nationwide Insurance Enterprise. The firms are also teaming up for the Marina District.

Mr. Kass is asking the port authority to approve the Heidtman site as a Free Trade Zone, which would allow shippers to avoid duties on goods they import and immediately export.

According to Mr. Kass, an extra benefit to the site is the I-280 bridge over the Maumee River, just upstream of the site, that is set to open in 2004.

He said his firm has discussed the site with potential tenants.

“Between now and 2004, it's not going to be hard to find somebody,” he said.

In the meantime, Mr. Kass plans to work on the Marina District.

That proposal includes a new sports arena surrounded by restaurants and apartments between the Martin Luther King Jr. Bridge and the new I-280 bridge. In the process, Mr. Kass's firm plans to clear the Gradel site, the former Toledo Edison Acme plant, and the Toledo Sports Arena.

The first hurdle is finding a home for Gradel, Mr. Kass said. He said he toured potential sights with Gradel owner John Gradel, and Mr. Gradel was most interested in the Heidtman property.

“This is the one he wanted, and this is the one we worked for,” Mr. Kass said.

“The interesting thing is, there may still not be a [Marina District] project. But we're committed to the Heidtman site at this time because we have to start the ball rolling,” Mr. Kass said.

The Heidtman proposal, however, is far from its conclusion.

Alan Raven, the accounting manager for Gradel, said the company isn't willing to move from Front Street, where it has been for 30 years, unless it doesn't cost them anything. That includes the cost of constructing a shop building for the firm.

Mark Ridenour, Heidtman's chief financial officer, said he didn't even know of Mr. Kass's decision to ask the port authority for approval of the deal. He said his firm has had only “preliminary discussions” with Mr. Kass.

“I don't know the deal. I don't know any of the terms,” he said.

While his firm has always been interested in finding someone to take over its lease, he said a key problem is how to structure a deal for a company willing to take over only part of the lease. Heidtman is leasing 67 acres - 21 of which are across Front Street and apparently not part of the Kass proposal.

The port authority also has not publicly signed onto the deal. Brian Schwartz, an agency spokesman, said officials are waiting to be approached by Heidtman. Even then, he said, he's not sure how the agency would proceed on amending a lease, other than having lawyers study the proposal.

Still, Mr. Kass has collected much civic praise in the past months, including Mayor Carty Finkbeiner calling him “the best developer in the Midwest” for developing old industrial sites.

The Heidtman property, 2401 Front St., is itself an old industrial site. For more than 80 years, it housed part of the Interlake plant, which produced pig iron and coke, and employed more than 500, before its closure in 1978.

Interlake split the property. The pig iron plant was vacated and its 67-acre parcel sold to a Toledo investment group, Riverfront Properties Co., for $2.7 million. The port authority bought the property in 1984 for $3.2 million for an anonymous developer.

The project, code named “Horse,” was so secret that port authority officials didn't tell then-Mayor Donna Owens. Eight months later, Toledo-based Heidtman Steel revealed that it was the secret buyer and planned to build a $150-million mill that would employ 125.

But Heidtman had trouble getting financing and opted to lease the property in 1986 for $28,500 a month - or $342,000 a year - for 40 years. Then, Heidtman officials dropped the mill idea altogether, but they still kept their corporate offices on the site.



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