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Published: Saturday, 8/7/2004

Ford offers a plan for growth agency; he'd lead its board Ex-Dana exec to head city effort

BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK AND JOE MAHR
BLADE STAFF WRITERS

Mayor Jack Ford pushed himself into the economic development fray yesterday by proposing a new Toledo-run agency that would take the lead in the region with himself as chairman of the new group's board of directors.

Mr. Ford suggested the merged city and county economic development office at a news conference, as he named his new economic development director, Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority Board member William J. Carroll, a former top executive with Dana Corp.

With studies showing the Toledo area's job pay and growth mired in a three-decade slump, local leaders commissioned a $134,000 study last year and have since been hashing out ideas on how to retool the region's economic development efforts.

The mayor's plan is the third competing one unveiled in three days, leading Lucas County Commissioners Harry Barlos and Maggie Thurber to complain that politics are trumping what so far had been a collaborative effort to come up with collective game plan.

County voters will decide in November whether to renew a 0.4-mill levy that partly funds economic development. Ms. Thurber said she fears they'll be turned off by the perception that local leaders still haven't agreed on anything.

"They are going to throw up their hands and say, 'You guys are a bunch of idiots. Can't you get your act together?'‚óŹ" she said.

Along with complaints about the timing of the mayor's plan, Ms. Thurber and Mr. Barlos said Mr. Carroll should resign from the port authority seat because of an appearance of a conflict of interest. Appointed by the commissioners to the port authority board last year, Mr. Carroll couldn't continue to represent the county on the board while holding a day job looking after the city's interest, they said.

Mr. Carroll, however, said he planned to remain on the board because he was chosen for his background in the corporate world. The retired Dana executive said he would rely on that same background in his new $91,900 job, which City Council still must approve.

"We created a lot of jobs with Dana. That's the name of the game: jobs," said Mr. Carroll, 59, of Rossford. "We need to have a niche to attract business and technology. The region has wonderful assets."

Under the current setup, the city and the county have their own economic development departments. Separately, the port authority acts as a middleman for businesses seeking low-interest loans, and the agency collects $2.5 million from a 0.4-mill property tax levy.

About half of that levy money is shifted to a sister economic development agency, the Regional Growth Partnership. It fills out its budget from donations from the private sector.

Amid complaints that the region collectively wasn't doing a good enough job creating and retaining jobs, the city, county, port authority, and growth partnership commissioned the 160-page study that concluded Lucas County residents are supporting a "high budget" economic development effort without sufficient results.

Port authority Chairman Tom Palmer began meeting with a host of area public and private leaders to come up a reformed structure, a process that's set to culminate in an Aug. 16 meeting between the boards of the port authority and growth partnership.

In the meantime, several competing plans have been publicly touted, the latest being Mr. Ford's.

Under his plan, Toledo would combine the $1.2 million it spends each year with the county's $350,000 to form a merged county-city agency to attract jobs to the entire county.

Mr. Ford said the new agency should have a board that includes the president of the county commissioners, the mayors of Maumee, Sylvania, and Oregon, and other representatives from the public and private sector. Mr. Ford said he would chair the board because Toledo has the largest population, the city controls the region's major water supply, and his office has key appointment power to various zoning and planning boards.

"To exclude the mayor from this role is to denigrate the whole concept of the strong mayoral form of government," he said, referring to a decision by Toledo voters a decade ago to give the mayor more power.

While Mr. Ford's plan called for a merged agency to absorb the growth partnership, he declined to talk about how the levy proceeds would play into the funding equation.

"We should not link the levy in my opinion with any reorganization. We also have a few months to go [before the vote]," he said.

The three county commissioners - Mr. Barlos, Ms. Thurber, and Tina Skeldon Wozniak - said they want to study the mayor's proposal first before supporting or rejecting it.

Mr. Palmer, who has led months of closed-door meetings to come up with a plan, said he welcomed all the input but stressed that the conflicting points of all the plans must be resolved so levy backers can "take a clear message to the community."

Regardless of the message, Mr. Barlos and Ms. Thurber said they wanted Mr. Carroll to step down from the 13-member port authority board.

"You have a high-ranking member of the city administration whose main task and job description is economic development sitting on a highly visible board whose main task and job description is economic development," Mr. Barlos said. "I would say that they're not compatible because I don't know how many hats you can wear."

The port authority said it researched the dual roles for Mr. Carroll and concluded it was proper. Spokesman Brian Schwartz pointed out that Jay Black, chief of staff for Mr. Ford, serves on the growth partnership board.

"There's a difference between elected officials and the people who serve elected officials," he said.

Port board member Bruce Baumhower said he did not consider it a conflict and said that former port board member G. Ray Medlin also served as former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner's economic development director for 39 days while on the board.

Despite any controversy surrounding the potential conflict of interest, no public officials disputed Mr. Carroll's qualifications to lead Toledo's job creation efforts.

Mr. Ford said his choice was a "lifelong Toledoan with top-flight CEO experience. . . . He knows business as well as anyone in the state."

Mr. Baumhower said Mr. Carroll's background in the automobile parts industry with Dana Corp. makes him the perfect choice because of the suppliers and jobs certain to be sparked by the Jeep plant expansion.

"I think Mr. Carroll is a very exciting announcement, especially based on what's going on with the Jeep plant," he said. "To me, he's a top-notch professional." Mr. Ford said Toledo needed to move forward with the Marina District project and with creating and supporting small business in the city and county.

Contact Christopher D. Kirkpatrick at: ckirkpatrick@theblade.com

or 419-724-6077.



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