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Published: Monday, 1/31/2005

Mayor pushes downtown projects to attract new people, businesses

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Toledo's downtown is showing renewed signs of life - even as a long shadow is being cast with the potential departure of Owens-Illinois Inc.

Two construction projects proposed by Mayor Jack Ford would provide parking and entertainment that could draw new people downtown.

And the new "Downtown Toledo Improvement District" could provide the cash to spruce up and promote the business district.

"It's downtown Toledo's time - things are beginning to click," said Pete Gozza, president of Downtown Toledo Inc. "The amphitheater will make a significant difference."

In his state of the city speech last Tuesday, Mr. Ford called for:

  • Allocating money from the $2.4 million city parks fund, along with seeking private donations and park grants, to build an amphitheater in Promenade Park. The open-air facility would have a partial roof but would be set in a corner of the park to avoid blocking the view of the river, a spokesman for the mayor said.

  • A parking garage in the 300 block of North Erie Street. Projected at 300 spaces, the garage could attract investment to the Nasby-Madison Building and trigger investment in the immediate area. Clayton Johnston, president of Downtown Toledo Parking Authority, said the garage could be financed from parking fees and from $625,000 in revenue that will become available in 2006 when some existing parking authority bonds are retired.

    The Downtown Toledo Improvement District, which was approved by Toledo City Council last Tuesday, will collect up to a year in new assessments from property owners there to pay for extra security, cleaning, and marketing. Mr. Gozza said the district would collect volunteer payments this year, while assessments would be added to property-tax bills starting in January, 2006.

    "A whole lot of restaurants have opened up since we did two years ago so I'd say things are starting to happen," said Pat Richardson, who, with Scott Rupert, owns The Lunch Hour diner at 332 North Erie St. They call their business "the last diner still standing" downtown.

    Daryl Yourist, owner of Leo's Book Store on Superior Street, said the level of activity in the downtown is "exciting." But he said he's concerned the downtown is becoming too restaurant-oriented.

    "We need more retail," Mr. Yourist said - something to keep people who come to the restaurants and the amphitheater, if it materializes.

    Two big clouds are threatening the resurgence.

    Fortune 500 company O-I is considering moving from its signature blue skyscraper at Cherry and Summit streets when its lease expires Sept. 30, 2006. O-I is said to be leaning toward relocating its 350 workers to its office, research, and development park in Perrysburg.

    The mayor has offered a package worth $8 million to encourage O-I to renew its lease at One SeaGate. Mr. Ford said Friday that he has spoken several times with O-I chief executive officer Steven McCracken but the city's offer has not been accepted.

    O-I's departure would deprive the city of income tax, customers for downtown businesses, and the prestige of hosting the Fortune 500 company, and it would add to the city's already high office vacancy rate.

    William Carroll, director of economic and community development for the city, said the building is in "beautiful" condition and would be easier to market than some other vacant buildings downtown if O-I departs.

    "We would do everything in our power to market and do the things necessary to bring people in there," he said.

    Another cloud is Fifth Third Bank's request to build a surface parking lot and service entrance in the 300 block of North Huron Street - necessitating the demolition of three buildings.

    The bank has warned that if Toledo City Council refuses to waive the ban on new surface lots downtown, the company will move 140 jobs to Sylvania Township.

    City Council President Louis Escobar said that he hoped the parking garage would solve Fifth Third's problem.

    But he said the bank has asked council to vote on its request to waive the ban on new surface lots downtown. Mr. Escobar said that the ordinance will be voted on Feb. 22.

    Jim Zaleski, owner of Diva restaurant, 329 North Huron, said the parking garage and the amphitheater are positive developments.

    But he said much more needs to happen. An exciting downtown is part of what attracts CEOs and entrepreneurs - like O-I.

    "O-I wants to be in a cool spot," Mr. Zaleski said. "If Steve McCracken [O-I's chief executive officer] is up there saying 'what a cool city this is,' maybe the [real estate] numbers don't matter so much."

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



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