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Published: Saturday, 2/19/2005

Ford balked at Erie Street garage cost

BY TOM TROY
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Ford Ford
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The city of Toledo may have missed an opportunity to save the doomed Huron Street buildings and 200 Fifth Third Bank jobs rather than have to choose between them, according to minutes of a meeting that took place 10 months ago.

And the furor over council President Louis Escobar's use of the word "terrorism" to describe the bank's threat to move jobs to Sylvania if it does not get a surface parking lot at the Huron site escalated yesterday with District 3 Councilman Bob McCloskey, a fellow Democrat, calling for his resignation as council president.

District 4 Councilman Michael Ashford, a Democrat whose district includes downtown, also said Mr. Escobar should step down as president.

Several other councilmen, while not agreeing that Mr. Escobar should give up the post, did express concern about his leadership.

At issue is Fifth Third's request for council approval of a surface parking lot and armored-truck service lane at 319, 321, and 323 North Huron - a step requiring the demolition of three buildings. Without the approval, the bank said it will move its regional operations center to Sylvania.

Escobar Escobar
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Preservationists and downtown advocates say the demolition would break up one of the longest stretches of buildings downtown.

A loose coalition, including preservationists, city planners, and the Downtown Toledo Parking Authority, sought last year to get Fifth Third to share in the construction of a parking garage, rather than demolish the buildings.

According to the minutes of a meeting held April 12, 2004, there was a chance to achieve that goal.

The meeting involved representatives of the parking authority, the Toledo Plan Commission, the Landmarks Preservation Council, and the Toledo City Historic Districts Commission, as well as John Szuch, chairman of Fifth Third Bank, Northwest Ohio, and Bruce Lee, president and chief executive officer of the bank.

"Both B. Lee and J. Szuch were very interested and supportive of the parking-garage solution and agreed that it would work best for everyone, as long as the project continued to move forward and would be realized in a timely fashion," the minutes state.

Stephen Herwat, executive director of the plan commission, forwarded the meeting minutes to Mayor Jack Ford four days later urging him, on behalf of the plan commission, to "take an active role in examining the feasibility of constructing the Erie Street garage."

But the garage idea fizzled with the mayor's office.

According to an internal memo by City Auditor Dan Hiskey, the $12.9-million price tag for a 630-space garage - with much of the $1 million annual debt to be shouldered by city taxpayers - caused the administration to drop the garage idea.

Yesterday, Mary Chris Skeldon, a spokesman for the mayor, said Mr. Ford was concerned about the cost of the 600-space garage. Then he had the threatened 2005 deficit of $16.8 million to deal with.

Mr. Escobar pitched a 300-space garage in November, and he said the bank agreed at that time to consider the proposal. He said the mayor also agreed to the plan. Such a garage would have cost $5.6 million.

Mr. Ford called for an Erie Street garage in his Jan. 25 State of the City speech. By then, however, Mr. Lee and Mr. Szuch had decided the parking garage would take too long and demanded a vote on their surface parking request.

"The mayor continues to believe that an Erie Street parking garage is necessary and could assist surrounding businesses, including Fifth Third," Ms. Skeldon said. "However, Fifth Third has said its needs are for parking sooner than that. If that is the case, he's not willing to sacrifice 200 jobs."

Karen Fraker, a senior bank vice president, yesterday confirmed that the meeting minutes reflected Mr. Szuch's and Mr. Lee's views at the time.

The parking lot vote is on council's agenda for Tuesday. There also could be some strong debate over the future leadership of council.

In a letter addressed to Mr. Escobar and circulated to his colleagues yesterday, Mr. McCloskey cited Mr. Escobar's description of Fifth Third's demand for council to waive its longtime ban on new surface parking lots downtown, or face the loss of up to 200 jobs, as "terrorism."

Mr. McCloskey said the remark did not represent the other members' views and have set back the city's efforts to keep jobs downtown.

"I feel [the bank has] been more than patient with council and the mayor by waiting more than a year to make a decision," Mr. McCloskey wrote, adding that he did not share Mr. Escobar's backing of a parking garage.

"I understand making comments out of anger but later when he refused to apologize or take his comments back, I think that he was way out of line for the President of Toledo City Council," Mr. McCloskey wrote in the two-page letter.

Mr. Escobar yesterday said that what he meant was that Fifth Third was holding the city hostage with its request for a waiver of the parking ban downtown. He rebuffed Mr. McCloskey's request.

"I am disappointed that he thinks I have done something so bad that warrants my resignation," Mr. Escobar said. "I think he has to be concerned more about his own trial and investigation that's going on and not worry about me."

Mr. McCloskey and the city were sued last year in U.S. District Court for $10 million.

EJS Properties LLC of Okemos, Mich., claimed Mr. McCloskey demanded $100,000 be paid into a fund for Pilkington North America retirees as a condition for support for rezoning the former Pilkington technical center in East Toledo for a charter school. The rezoning was denied by city council in 2002. The case is awaiting trial.

Mr. Ashford said Mr. McCloskey had a right to ask for Mr. Escobar's resignation as council president.

"Louis had an opportunity to apologize to the public, the community, and the area businesses and he chose not to. Instead, he made it more difficult for himself and for the rest of us," Mr. Ashford said.

Councilmen Betty Shultz, Ellen Grachek, Wilma Brown, George Sarantou, Phillip Copeland, Karyn McConnell Hancock, and Rob Ludeman declined to join Mr. McCloskey's call for Mr. Escobar to step aside.

But Mr. Ludeman, a Republican who is considering a run for mayor this year, said: "I'm not sure that's the type of leadership we're interested in."

Councilmen Wade Kapszukiewicz and Frank Szollosi could not be reached last night for comment.

Ms. Fraker of Fifth Third Bank declined to comment on Mr. Escobar's terminology.

Mr. Escobar has been council president since January, 2003.

Blade staff writers Kim Bates, David Patch, and Erica Blake contributed to this report.

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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