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Published: Monday, 4/24/2006

Marina District awaiting private money

BY CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
BLADE STAFF WRITER

It was a clear day as Mayor Carty Finkbeiner - with one eye on the news cameras - pointed from his 22nd-floor window to a tract of fallow dirt across the Maumee River.

He implored the cameras to capture the land that sits between the aging Toledo Sports Arena and the new $220 million, I-280 bridge project.

The Marina District's 125 acres were proof, he said, of progress, of 70 clean and "shovel-ready" acres of great things to come, of Toledo's future.

It could be the land that comes to define his administration - for better or for worse.

"For those who would say ... very little has happened in the Marina District, I would ask you to look out the window directly behind me where a significantly challenged waterfront property is now cleaned up and ready for development," he said to the assembled media.

Such commitments never came, and developer Pizzuti Cos. of Columbus was fired by the mayor. Now the mayor's Marina District "team" is focusing on the public works aspects: A passenger terminal for Great Lakes cruise ships, a public marina under construction, and a public road from Front Street down to the marina.

The land has been ready, in spirit, for at least five years, but the project has never moved much past the public dollar stage. And once again, a developer has moved on, a vision has been scrapped, and a new plan to win investment from developers in San Antonio is in the works.

The main thing missing from the Marina District has always been significant private investment.

Some private money has been spent, including a $100,000 study from Pizzuti Cos. But mostly, it has been public dollars invested in preparing a piece of land that private investment continues to avoid.

At the last council meeting, the public dollars continued to flow as the council approved more than $3 million to continue to prepare the land.

Mayor Finkbeiner, who inherited certain aspects of the project from previous Mayor Jack Ford's administration, is changing strategies out of necessity.

"Do we eliminate the 'destination retailer' from the plan? I have talked to several developers in the area, and they have told me that it never made sense, anyway," said Don Monroe, the mayor's new coordinator of the project. "Do we eliminate that from the design? Right now, it's a question, and it hasn't been decided. The people in San Antonio might be interested in investing."

They have little choice but to change strategies. Gone are the dreams of a Bass Pro Shops or an IKEA, they say. Alive are dreams of a San Antonio-style riverwalk and housing, which has become the new focus. This morning the team is in Texas to try and sell the dream to investors.

Even with the view that a destination retailer might be wrong for the project, the mayor courted Bass Pro hard in January, inviting company President Jim Hagale to tour Toledo. He even arranged for the Central Catholic marching band to play the Notre Dame fight song because Mr. Hagale graduated from that school. UT football Coach Tom Amstutz gave a presentation, among others.

Bass Pro didn't return a call, said James Russell, senior vice president for Pizzuti. He said a major retailer would not come to the district unless there was more to offer, perhaps an amphitheater or housing with a ready-made, middle-to-upper- class clientele.

The mayor then fired Pizzuti and assembled a local team, saying he wanted local input and local contractors on the job. He has proposed paying the River East Economic Revitalization Corp., headed by Mr. Monroe, $8,000 a month to run the project. Part of the money would cover Mr. Monroe's salary while he works at his dual roles, he said.

Toledo City Council's Economic Development Committee, which is chaired by council President Rob Ludeman, plans to hold a public hearing on Thursday at 2 p.m. to hear Marina District updates and discuss the $8,000-per-month proposal.

"The most difficult part of a project of this size is getting that first domino to fall," said Jim Mettler, a member of the mayor's team and the economic development director for the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority.

"It's not so much a matter of using those public projects to spur development," he said. "Those are moving forward because they are ready to move forward, but anything that demonstrates progress is a good thing."

It's all a tough sell, and the land still stands largely vacant with the mayor and his team now focused on the trip to San Antonio. There, the local group of planners, which includes Mr. Mettler and Mr. Monroe, will present new Marina District plans to dredge an inland canal that would provide instant waterfront lots for new homes and a riverwalk.

The San Antonio seminar, called "Just Add Water," is sponsored by Alvin Groves, divisional vice president of Tetra Tech Inc., a national engineering firm. Mr. Groves has been working on a proposal for a Toledo riverwalk, which he is expected to unveil at the seminar.

He gained fame for the expansion of the San Antonio RiverWalk from an uninspiring city park to an entertainment and shopping marvel in 1968 in preparation for the World's Fair.

"The people in San Antonio have an interest in the development," Mr. Monroe said.

Larry Dillin, who was involved with a previous Marina District proposal, said that housing is the key to building up the area. Retail would follow, he said.

Mr. Dillin, who is the president of Dillin Development Corp., recently built Levis Commons in Perrysburg and is working on redeveloping Southwyck Mall in South Toledo.

"My opinion of what the downtown area needs most is good quality housing along the waterfront - that's the way you change the demographic of central Toledo, good quality housing," he said.

"It's been my position all along that it's not a destination retail location. The demographics of that area are not strong; they are weak. It's not well-positioned when you consider other retail locations nearby with Franklin Park Mall, Levis Commons, and in the future, Fallen Timbers," he said.

He said housing and a riverwalk that connects the 125 acres of the Marina District with International Park and The Docks on the other side of the Martin Luther King, Jr., Bridge should be the first step. The public works projects, such as the marina, add to the area but should be part of a master plan so it can "all hang together," Mr. Dillin said.

"My basic philosophy is we should be creating great neighborhoods. If they lead with the residential and you have the waterfront as the hook for that area with a marina and boat slips and public parks, then you create such residential density that you'll then need service-oriented retail," he said. "We've been interested in the Marina District all along."

The possibilities for a undeveloped waterfront have always been endless, according to local boosters. But it's about that first domino.

Mr. Dillin speaks of creating an entertainment district that would tie Main Street in East Toledo with the Marina District. Council President Rob Ludeman has touted the new I-280 bridge still under construction as the key to bringing in traffic to a destination retail anchor. Turning Toledo into a port of call for cruise ships is also in the mix.

"There's few people aware of this in Toledo, but there's a pretty healthy Great Lakes cruise industry, and what we hope to do is make Toledo a port of call," Mr. Mettler said.

The ships could run from Toledo to the Bass Islands and other tourist spots: "From Port Clinton into the Marina District. Our hope is to bring people into Toledo and not to bring them out," he said.

Other ideas in the past have ranged from a mega hotel-and-restaurant development to the current simpler vision of housing without the need of large-scale retail commitments.

On that day when the mayor pointed out the window, he had called a news conference in the aftermath of firing Pizzuti.

The event was part damage control, part look to the future, part pep rally. There was no new development, nothing fresh for the assembled reporters.

The mayor stressed that 70 acres already have been cleaned and are ready to be developed. About 30 acres would be for commercial and 40 for residential projects at the site, Mr. Finkbeiner said. The site includes some structures that still need to be razed.

Before the year is out, the mayor predicted a marina with boat slips, a site identified for an amphitheater, a road through the 125 acres, and the remainder of the land cleared and cleaned.

And he left open the possibility of securing that missing private investment - the hope of which has pushed along the project for years. "We have talked very informally, very informally with a couple of private-sector persons who are from northwestern Ohio who are quite visionary and quite excited about the Marina District," he said at the press conference.

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



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