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Published: Monday, 8/2/2004

Last dentist, eye doctor downtown set their sights on healthier future

Larry P. Schmakel examines Nathan Fitzgerald in the dentist's Toledo office. Dr. Schmakel, a downtown fixture, bought the practice in the Bell Building 21 years ago. Larry P. Schmakel examines Nathan Fitzgerald in the dentist's Toledo office. Dr. Schmakel, a downtown fixture, bought the practice in the Bell Building 21 years ago.

Dentist Larry P. Schmakel is torn between the downtown that needs him and the moneyed suburbs, where he could buy a building and expand his practice - just like a parade of downtown dentists before him.

The 47-year-old said he is the last dentist downtown, and with him is the only optometrist, James Hawke. Downtown economic development needs to be about more than restaurants and theaters, Dr. Schmakel said, it also needs to be about attracting professionals like him.

"It's been a challenge for many years, since probably the early '80s, when the big department stores started leaving," he said. "This geographic area is the same population as 20 years ago, but it has shifted to the suburbs. The dentists want to go where the people and students are."

Their practices thrive, still, but mostly because of patients from outside downtown, Drs. Schmakel and Hawke said.

Dr. Hawke sees about 1,500 patients a year who mostly live outside downtown, he said. More than 95 percent of Dr. Schmakel's 1,500 patients are from outer areas.

Dr. Schmakel might be considered a downtown fixture. Business owners recognize him on sight. For potential customers, he hands them his business card, or more accurately, his "flosscard," which offers not only address information, but a supply of dental floss coiled inside the white plastic card.

Together, the two medical professionals form a minicluster of health services at Madison Avenue and Erie Street in the historic Bell Building.

They might be relics of a bygone era when downtown workers ran to the dentist during their lunch hours. Or they might offer a glimpse of a brighter future for downtown, depending on whom you ask.

As the only dentist downtown - a business district defined as an area bordered by Cherry and 14th streets, the warehouse district, and the Maumee River - Dr. Schmakel has tracked the economic development efforts to revitalize the area, he said.

There are tax abatements on condominiums and federal money to spruce up the storefronts of small businesses. There's Downtown Toledo Inc., working to draw business and people downtown, and other public agencies and city departments working to create jobs.

And there's the ballpark.

But the fact remains that there aren't as many people, or at least families, living or working downtown as 21 years ago when Dr. Schmakel bought the practice.

Census figures show a steady downtown population over the 1990s, but also depict an area increasingly unpopular with families, even as the number of households has more than doubled.

For a three-ZIP code area that roughly covers downtown, the 2000 census showed a population of 11,531 compared with 11,280 in 1990. Households more than doubled from 2,326 in 1990 to 5,127 in 2000.

Optometrist James Hawke has had his eyecare business downtown for 20 years. He said he expects to see a gradual revitalization of the city and the customers that would provide. Optometrist James Hawke has had his eyecare business downtown for 20 years. He said he expects to see a gradual revitalization of the city and the customers that would provide.

But over the same time period, the number of families - the traditional units that seek family dentists and doctors and other services - shrank from 4,912 in 1990 to 2,207 in 2000, according to U.S. Census figures.

The number of businesses has fallen from 1,331 in 1990 to 1,238 now, according to Dun & Bradstreet market surveys and the Regional Growth Partnership.

Dun & Bradstreet said there are two dentists and two optometrists in downtown, but the data cover an area larger than what most would consider the traditional business district, said John Gibney, director of communications and marketing for the growth partnership. The list does not name the practices, he said.

Drs. Schmakel and Hawke say they are the only ones.

It might be the better business decision, but Dr. Schmakel has trouble leaving, evidenced by the eight years he's been thinking about it.

"[The idea of leaving] has been evolving since 1996. I have the ability to take care of more patients now. It's a lot faster than it used to be with new technology. I would like to grow, but Toledo has been very good to me - to us," he said. "Downtown can only get better, but we have a long way to go. I've seen it bottom out and now come back a little."

Dr. Hawke, for his part, has no intention of leaving.

He rides the Perrysburg-to-downtown bus each day, the same as he has for 20 years. He's the classic downtown commuter. But ridership has diminished over that time, the 51-year-old has noticed, and there's not as many express buses, either. But he's also witnessed the numbers inching back up lately, he said.

"My general impression is that years ago everything was in downtown, but now there's a concentration of optometrists in the [Westfield Shoppingtown] Franklin Park mall area," he said.

His and Dr. Schmakel's building, the Bell Building, is across from a downtown TARTA station. The location is perfect for pedestrian traffic, but there's not much parking.

On the other side of the station, the majestic Madison Building with classical columns and squared off lines is mostly boarded up; a sign of the past having caught up to the present and of a downtown influx.

"I do have my share of customers who are people working downtown," Dr. Hawke said. "But, overall, we don't have a particular concentration of people from here. I think things will get slowly revitalized. I think it will, but I don't think it will be very fast. The ballpark's been a boost. And I'd like to see something done with that Madison Avenue building."

It's an old bank, built in 1927, with marble columns and a three-story atrium. The grandeur, though, is half concealed behind 1950s-era partitions and false ceilings that make architecture students and art historians grimace. The city has plans to push restoration of the building at 607 Madison Ave.

Dr. Hawke's practice occupies the corner spot of the Bell Building, a block south, at the intersection of Madison Avenue and Erie Street.

An "Open" sign lists hours, as if he were a diner or a gas station. It's more suited to the pedestrian traffic of a traditional downtown and not of a mall, where many optometrists now dwell, he said.

On the side of the building, the practices advertise with rectangular signs painted directly on brick, a downtown tradition.

When pressed, Dr. Schmakel can't think of more than one reason to stay.

But he stays anyway.

"It's a great centralized location; we have patients from Findlay, Monroe, Sandusky, Huron, and Swanton, it's not like it's just the nearby city," he said. "Right now, there's a group of patients who would like me to move, and another group of patients, a much smaller group, that wants me to stay."

Down from the Bell Building, optimism, fueled in part by baseball and the high-ceiling architecture of new condominiums, permeates Toledo's city offices, particularly the office of Sabrina Grimm.

She shares Dr. Hawke's optimism and Dr. Schmakel's contention that downtown has turned a corner. It's Ms. Grimm's job, as manager of Downtown Development for the city, to care, even to be optimistic.

"We have a variety of programs. I believe you [build downtown back up], little by little, pocket by pocket. We've done quite well, I believe, in the last two years. We'd like to continue that," she said. "We are actively promoting market rate [affordable] housing, actively promoting professional businesses, as well as entertainment and restaurants. It takes a mix to create the neighborhood communities that we're looking for."

Ms. Grimm runs programs that offer incentives or tax awards to professionals who move downtown for a fresh start.

"I think you can look at some of the trends from some of the real estate companies and see that there is active involvement in downtown. Prior to that, the trends were in a downward spiral. You can see that downtown has stabilized and has gotten better with the attention given to it," she said.

Last week, Dr. Schmakel sat in front of his office window and looked onto the half-covered pink stone facade of the mostly shuttered Madison Building. Only a barbershop on the ground floor looked open for any kind of business.

Not exactly a beehive of activity, buses still churned by, coughing exhaust, people still walked down the sidewalks, and cars still drove by.

Dr. Schmakel opened a manila folder filled with newspaper articles and papers from when he worked on an economic development technology committee, an offshoot of a larger task force studying the "brain drain" phenomenon in the city. The fear was that the best and smartest were leaving to the detriment of Toledo's future.

He was inspired to become involved after reading a quotation in a newspaper article years ago, he said, holding up a copy of the story.

"There was a comment made when a young lady was asked what would keep young people in Toledo, and she said, more bars and entertainment," he remembered. "Back then, my friend [and I], we read that comment, and we kind of chuckled: It's about jobs and family and entertainment, we said."

Contact Christopher Kirkpatrick at: ckirkpatrick@theblade.com or 419-724-6077.

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