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Published: Sunday, 1/23/2005

Elegant city still on Ford s to-do list

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

It s crunch year for Toledo Mayor Jack Ford.

After three years of what even his supporters acknowledge has been a low-key administration, Mr. Ford has balanced the budget, reformed the way city hall cuts business deals, and held on to the city s biggest employers.

A review of Mr. Ford s record found that he came through on many of the promises he made during his 2001 run for mayor.

But others didn t materialize as planned.

If he wants to be a two-term strong mayor, Mr. Ford may still have to prove that he can produce the elegant city and the economic revitalization that he promised three years ago.

Jack Ford is not a man who touts what he does; he just does it, said Council President Louis Escobar, ticking off Mr. Ford s accomplishments for the under-insured, his determination to set higher standards for making city loans, and his tight management of the city s budget in tough financial times.

Republican City Councilman George Sarantou agreed that the mayor certainly inherited a tough budget situation. He said Mr. Ford has been a cautious and detail-oriented administrator, even a micro-manager.

But that s not enough, Mr. Sarantou added.

Toledo has a lot of [economic development] potential, and the mayor has to be a big part of that in terms of being the messenger, Mr. Sarantou said. We really have got to get our economic health more in order to be more proactive.

Toledo has made significant advances in the last three years among them DaimlerChrysler s decision to invest $900 million in expansion of the Jeep plant, the new Dana Corp. technical center under a tax-sharing agreement with Maumee and Monclova Township, restrictions on smoking in restaurants, and progress in securing and cleaning up the Marina District site.

Not to be overlooked as well is that Toledo city government has avoided layoffs and tax increases while maintaining services. Mr. Ford s proposed general fund operating budget for next year $223.6 million is about $700,000 less than former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner had to allocate in his last budget in 2001.

Jack had a lot of cleanup he had to do, said state Rep. Peter Ujvagi (D., Toledo), referring to the budget deficit and defaulted loans for Commodore Perry and two other near-downtown housing projects that Mr. Ford inherited when he took office in January, 2002.

Mr. Ujvagi said the mayor has done a good job considering how we spent [money] during the early part of the 90s, [and] how we came into 2000-2001.

Others disagree.

He hasn t shown for me any leadership, said Bill Delaney, owner of Delaney s Lounge on Alexis Road and the leader of the effort to overturn Mr. Ford s 2003 smoking ban.

His perception of business is poor, at best. I voted for him and I had a lot of respect for him, but that has faded, he said.

Mr. Ford, 57, grew up in Springfield, Ohio, and graduated from Ohio State University in 1969. He came to Toledo in 1974 to get a law degree and a master s degree in public administration from the University of Toledo.

He never left.

Mr. Ford helped found Substance Abuse Services Inc., a nonprofit drug and alcohol abuse treatment center which grew to have a staff of 60 and a $1.5 million budget.

He was elected in 1987 to City Council and in 1994 to the state House of Representatives, where he became that body s first African-American minority leader.

His opponent in the 2001 election for Toledo s strong mayor, then-Lucas County Treasurer Ray Kest, outspent Mr. Ford by 2-1 in a race that cost $1.2 million overall. But Mr. Ford won election with more than 60 percent of the vote.

Mr. Ford s platform focused on youth, expanded social and city services, stopping sprawl, downtown development, and citywide beautification, captured in the term elegant city.

As mayor, Mr. Ford increased the racial and gender diversity of the city s contractors, appointed a cabinet-level arts director with private funding, and put up a statue honoring the late Ohio Gov. James Rhodes.

He brought together the rival ProMedica Health System and Mercy Health Partners to offer health care to the uninsured now with more than 5,000 participants and maintains a more cooperative relationship with City Council than his predecessor-turned-TV talk show host Mr. Finkbeiner.

Mayor Ford has also accomplished several government reforms. He appointed a full-time safety director; merged the neighborhoods and economic development departments to save money, and combined the city s purchasing, affirmative action, and contract compliance offices to make sure contracts get careful scrutiny and minority contractors get a fair shake.

Mr. Ford created free dumping days at the landfill, streamlined the process for citing dilapidated properties, and provided city dump trucks to assist neighborhood groups in their cleanups.

Mr. Ford says he is particularly proud of a plan begun in 2003 to divide the city into 16 ZIP Code sectors with department heads running volunteer cleanups.

So you d have lawyers, for example, thinking about neighborhoods, Mr. Ford said.

He is proud of having forced the merger of some of the 14 community development corporations. Some of them, he said, treated the city s annual federal community development block grant as Monopoly money.

The mayor and his staff tackled sick leave abuse, reduced the number of city-owned cars and cell phones, and required city employees to take training in diversity, customer service, and ethics with little fanfare.

In July, 2003, however, Mayor Ford attracted statewide attention when he got City Council to pass what was then Ohio s toughest municipal ban ever on smoking in bars, restaurants, bowling alleys, and bingo halls. Bar owners put the ban on the ballot in November and voters approved an amendment that restores smoking in bars, bowling alleys, and bingo halls, but retains the ban in most restaurants.

Mr. Ford has held three regionalism meetings with officials from suburban communities, after dropping the unigov term that sent alarms through many suburban offices. He s refused to share water with Lucas County unless the city gets ironclad anti-sprawl guarantees but he s slowly working out a deal to pipe water to the western Lucas County town of Berkey.

I think they ve moved this along as expeditiously as something like this can move along, Berkey Mayor Barbara Huff said Friday.

Some promises have not become reality, at least not the way the mayor articulated.

Mr. Ford vowed to form a new youth group to be called Next Toledo Inc., that would be underwritten with $300,000 in privately raised cash. It never happened.

Instead, Mr. Ford said he has provided assistance to existing groups, such as Aspiring Minds and a group formed by the Urban Coalition of Greater Toledo.

Mr. Ford said he would spend 30 percent of his time on youth issues. He claims he was successful in his first two years, but backed off in the last year to concentrate on economic development. He said youth issues will resurface this year, and he vowed to resume regular walks with children that were interrupted by a toe injury and concerns about his diabetes.

Mr. Ford pledged to establish a city office of school services. No such office exists.

The mayor said he has accomplished the same goal by having a monthly meeting with Toledo Public Schools Superintendent Eugene Sanders and the board of education president, and other formal relationships with the school system.

Mayor s Time, an idea launched in Mr. Ford s inaugural speech to get churches and others to provide safe activity places for children after school, was rarely mentioned again.

The Rev. Cheri Holdridge, pastor of the Central United Methodist Church, said she attended several meetings at the mayor s office, but got no help of the kind she needed to expand her existing two-day program money.

Getting volunteers from 3 to 6 [p.m.] is very hard, Ms. Holdridge said. The mayor s heart was in the right place, but he didn t have people around him who were really researching what this would cost.

On this point, Mr. Ford acknowledged, he might have been naive, but said Mayor s Time is active in a couple of churches.

As a candidate and for a time early in his mayoralty, Mr. Ford vowed to pull together a $5 million venture capital fund to invest in entrepreneurs.

It didn t happen that way, in part, Mr. Ford said, because entrepreneurs don t like the strings that come with city money. Mr. Ford said he accomplished something better: creation of the Toledo Small Business Initiative with the U.S. Small Business Administration. A city investment of $900,000 cash is leveraging $12 million in private investment, resulting in 34 new or expanded businesses with 344 jobs.

One of Mr. Ford s most valued mementoes, he said, is the glass trophy he received last year from the SBA s regional office in Chicago.

Mr. Ford can cite numerous initiatives that have quietly moved downtown forward, such as the retention of Pilkington and Hylant Group and their employees downtown; street paving in the Warehouse District and construction of brick crosswalks, and the development of privately owned, rather than government-subsidized housing downtown.

But Mr. Ford s loftier visions for downtown development to make it a point of destination seem like a more distant goal.

No money or specific plan is yet in place for his proposed Promenade Park amphitheater another mayoral campaign goal. The administration did spend $400,000 last fall to replace the pedestrian walk from Summit Street into Promenade Park with a vehicle roadway. That will eventually allow the closure of Water Street between Jefferson Avenue and Madison for an open air amphitheater.

We still have a major plan on that, he insisted.

One campaign commitment Mr. Ford conceded hasn t moved an inch was his vision for an underground parking lot and above-ground park for the Paramount block across from the Valentine Theatre.

It could be so crowded you might have to have people parachuting in, Mr. Ford enthused in an interview with The Blade published Sept. 4.

The current view from the Valentine where Mr. Ford will give his fourth State of the City speech Tuesday remains what it was in early 2002: An imposing trash bin occupies the curb lane in the 400 block of Superior Street.

A check by The Blade revealed that the haul-off bin being used by a developer who has been renovating a multistory building at Superior and Adams streets since before Mr. Ford took office has had permits continuously from February, 2002, until Dec. 31. Last week, the city renewed the encroachment permit for another 30 days, said Tom Kroma, commission of code enforcement.

Mr. Kroma said the building is nearing completion. He just needs to market it, he said.

That s owned privately, Mr. Ford said of the Paramount block, which is now mostly surface parking. Given the city s economic situation I don t see any change on that. But my hope is that one day I d love to see us get control of that again, or at least part of it, and make it into green space.

Almost all of the things we ve had to modify or trim [are] because of budget realities, he added.

All the same, friends and foes lament the painstakingly slow pace at which official business gets conducted in Government Center, and the all-too-frequent lack of communication.

Mr. Ujvagi said the Marina District project has not moved as it could have, in part because the mayor s project point men keep changing amid complaints from East Toledoans about not being consulted.

I don t have a problem with being the bean counter. My concern was the amount of time it took to move forward on those projects, Mr. Ujvagi said. My concern has been the involvement of folks, the stakeholders, people who are going to be directly affected.

Councilman Wade Kapszukiewicz said Mr. Ford is a difficult person to communicate with personally, but his administration is difficult to communicate with structurally.

Mr. Ford makes no excuse for taking extra weeks or months to renegotiate contracts, even if that infuriates business owners and some councilmen.

His job, he says, is to look out for taxpayers interests by making sure city loans are secured.

Mr. Ford said he has identified another $2.7 million in debt that the city s been stuck with.

It ticks me off when you do these deals and the taxpayer wasn t protected and you end up paying for it for the next 20 years, Mr. Ford said. I m trying to get the law department and the economic development department to ask the crucial question: Who pays if this deal goes south?

Nevertheless, Mr. Ford appears to be reacting to the demands for more economic development and quick.

Last year, he fired Steven Seaton, the economic development director he had hired from Cleveland in early 2002, and hired former Dana Corp. executive William Carroll to take over economic development.

Mr. Ford said he expects to firm up a deal soon with Toledo businessman and NBA player Jim Jackson to develop the shuttered Toledo Edison Steam Plant building in Promenade Park into riverfront housing.

And after having rejected deals with Columbus real estate businessman Frank Kass and Toledo builder Bruce Douglas he is confident he s found the right Marina District developer in the Pizzuti Co. of Columbus, at less financial risk to the city. City Council is weighing a development agreement with Pizzuti to develop the 125-acre former industrial property on the East Toledo riverfront.

I think the Marina District is pretty much nailed down. It s just a question of the exact mix of things that will go in there, Mr. Ford said. The Steam Plant, I m hoping, will have some mortar and nails and planks going in as early as April.

The declining Southwyck Shopping Center, a key campaign issue for Mr. Ford, remains a big question mark. Mr. Ford said he has investors waiting to buy the South Toledo shopping mall if he can get the owners to agree on a price.

So far, Mr. Ford does not have a committed opponent in the November election. Republican City Councilman Rob Ludeman has formed a mayoral exploratory committee. Mr. Finkbeiner has said he is considering a run.

Mr. Ford said he has accumulated $320,000 for his re-election campaign.

Jack has done a good job in tough times and you have to convince people he s done that, said James Ruvolo, the former state Democratic chairman and a close adviser of Mr. Ford.

Though Mr. Ruvolo wishes Mr. Ford had spent some of that money and a little more time promoting himself and his achievements thus far, he added:

I m neither elated nor dismayed by the task we have in front of us.

Contact Tom Troy at: tomtroy@theblade.com or 419-724-6058.



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