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Published: Monday, 11/24/2003

Council wants role in Toledo's economic development

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Worried that cutbacks in Toledo s economic development arm could handicap the city in the competition for jobs, Toledo City Council wants to play a more active role in economic development.

The effort has created tension in the otherwise harmonious relationship between the Democratic mayor and the majority-Democrats on council.

Council members want a more openly aggressive development effort, while Mayor Ford is emphasizing job retention and improving the overall climate. He says his approach is working.

Both may be right.

“It s a new administration; they re only in their second year. This is why council is stepping up to the plate. We re going to invite ourselves to the party,” said Council President Louis Escobar.

It s still not clear what council s foray into economic development will bring, other than a heightened awareness of the need for outreach and following through when a constituent has a problem.

Councilman Peter Gerken suggested each councilman commit to bringing 50 new jobs to the city.

“I want a message to go back to the administration that we re here to help you as a partner, not an adversary,” Mr. Gerken said.

Council members began talking about increasing the involvement in economic development at an all-day retreat in September.

Since then, council has held two half-day retreats.

One of council s concerns is that the economic development unit s budget is being cut.

The proposed personnel budget for economic development for 2004 is $328,002 - a 22 percent decline from this year s budget of $415,995 - while police and fire are both slated for increases of 7 percent.

Councilman Frank Szollosi noted that the department s budget for postage is only $32. Three years ago, the department budgeted $7,500 for postage.

“I think that s wrong. We need to be proactive,” Mr. Szollosi said.

Mr. Ford said in an interview Friday those numbers don t tell the full story.

For example, he said, assistant chief operating officer John Loftus, whose job is in the mayor s office budget, is effectively a full-time business recruiter because he is assigned to helping bring a national anchor retail store to close the Westfield America Trust purchase of Southwyck Shopping Center.

Furthermore, Chief Operating Officer Jay Black, Jr., takes an active role with the Regional Growth Partnership.

For some council members, the announcement last week that Convergys planned to shutter its technical call center company at Southland Shopping Center confirmed their concerns.

Convergys informed its 570 employees that as a result of corporate restructuring, the center would close by Feb. 29.

It was the same day council members were meeting at The Roost, at Fifth Third Field, in a half-day retreat.

“I m really upset that we knew nothing about that call center. There may have been something we could have done before the announcement,” Mr. Escobar said.

Mr. Ford said city officials had some contact with the company in February and March, and were given no clue of their plans, the mayor said. “Whatever we could have done, if they had called us, we would have done,” Mr. Ford said.

The departure will have a direct impact on Toledo s bottom line, potentially costing the city government more than $100,000 a year in income tax revenue. And it exacerbates Toledo s “brain drain” - many of the jobs required computer knowledge.

The ongoing Toledo Tool & Die case is also fueling council s concern.

A chance conversation between Tony Kujawa III, president of Toledo Tool & Die on Alexis Road, with a roofing contractor last summer revealed a problem.

The successful machining company might have to leave Toledo because it couldn t persuade the city to sell it part of a vacant 13-acre parcel that had been leased to the Trilby Youth Baseball Foundation.

The roofer relayed the story to his friend, Councilman Bob McCloskey, who launched an effort to pressure the Trilby group to give up its lease.

Mr. Kujawa said Mr. McCloskey s intervention was important. “We were just going back and forth and not a lot was happening,” Mr. Kujawa said. “There didn t seem to be a person we could go to.”

An ordinance to sell 3.5 acres to Toledo Tool & Die, along with a promise to find alternative space for a Trilby ball field, is now pending on council s agenda.

Mr. Ford and Steve Seaton, the director of economic and community development, don t deny that Mr. McCloskey helped light a fire to retain Toledo Tool & Die.

But they said that city council created the problem in the first place by voting to lease the isolated property for a baseball field - and then extending the lease in 1999 even after the baseball club made no progress in constructing a baseball complex.

“That was a bad deal for the taxpayers,” Mr. Ford said. “Now Councilman McCloskey is going to save the day, but at what cost? I see it as something that could have been done a lot cheaper.”

The centerpiece of the mayor s economic development plan is the business visitation program.

Staffers in economic development have a goal of visiting 1,000 businesses in Toledo this year. Each visit generates information for a database, and opens a line of communication with the city government.

Mr. Ford says the visitations tell businesses that Toledo appreciates their presence.

In his presentation to council last week, Mr. Seaton said most of the businesses contacted by his department appear to be relatively satisfied with their situation. A manager in his office, Ken Spruce, makes sure they get help with problems that other departments can solve, such as flooding, utilities, or public safety.

Councilman Wade Kapszukiewicz said he wonders how much use the visiting program is.

“If it s taking that much staff, time, and effort to visit businesses that are apparently happy, then maybe we should spend less time doing that and more time visiting with businesses that have left or are telling us they re leaving,” Mr. Kapszukiewicz said.

But Mr. Ford claims his approach has paid off by making deals to keep Owens-Corning, Pilkington North America, Libbey Glass, and Hylant Group in the city.

“The major difference is I don t have a press conference every time we cut a deal,” Mr. Ford said. “Business people tell me they like it that way.”

He says he s doing longer-term things.

He believes his emphasis on the arts and improving Toledo Public Schools is helping to build a community that attracts businesses rather than drives them away.

“We ve moved our position strongly into retention. In tough economic times you keep the businesses that you have in place,” Mr. Ford said. “It is the RGP and the Port Authority that are empowered best to bring in new business. They have more tools than we have.”

Mr. Seaton said the city director of economic development doesn t have the budget or the staff to entertain business prospects at country clubs and swanky restaurants. “The business attraction, or smokestack chasing, to me, is the primary responsibility of the Regional Growth Partnership,” Mr. Seaton said.



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