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Published: Sunday, 12/28/2008

A new face, place seized Toledo's spotlight in 2008

BY JC REINDL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

It's not unusual during presidential election season for an area in a swing state to momentarily find itself in the national spotlight.

But in a surprise twist, the individual who brought the most attention this year to northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan wasn't named Obama, McCain, Clinton, or Palin.

He was Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, a 34-year-old single father in Springfield Township, who on a sunny October afternoon coaxed from Barack Obama a sound bite about spreading wealth and three days later got mentioned nearly two dozen times during a presidential debate.

And so arrived the man and phenomenon known as "Joe the Plumber," one of the biggest and unlikeliest newsmakers of 2008 in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan.

Opportunist, media victim, or working-class hero, nearly everyone had an opinion on Joe the Plumber. But Mr. Wurzelbacher's overnight rise to fame did bring a momentary distraction from an economic crisis that's still unfolding and has jolted economies locally and worldwide - "from Wall Street to Main Street" as was oft-repeated.

Another local figure who made national waves was Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner, who ordered a company of Marine Corps Reservists from Grand Rapids, Mich., to about-face and vacate downtown.

Grislier events of 2008 involved one Adrian teenager who was charged with killing his parents after an argument about cell-phone minutes and another from the area who was given a life sentence for poisoning her grandmother with morphine.

Rounding out the year's news were the much-anticipated arrival of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition; the vote to not explore a Sylvania and Sylvania Township merger; the departure of Bowing Green State University President Sidney Ribeau; the conviction of three local men for plotting to kill U.S. troops; the firing of James Hartung from his post as president of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority; the passing of Southwyck Shopping Center, the resurrection of COSI, and an apartment complex fire in South Toledo.

On a February afternoon, as a bus convoy carrying 200 members of Company A, 1st Battalion, 24th Marines, of Grand Rapids, Mich., approached Toledo for a weekend of urban patrol exercises, they received an unexpected call from the city: The mayor didn't want them downtown.

The order came as a surprise to the Marine Reservists, who thought that they had already received the necessary clearance from Toledo police. Yet somehow word of their trip never made it to Mr. Finkbeiner, who learned of their planned arrival in that morning's newspaper.

Lacking an urban venue to drill, the Marines turned around and headed home.

Mr. Finkbeiner stood by his decision despite a large public outcry. He said he had told the Marines two years earlier, after a previous exercise, that he didn't want them downtown again.

Fallout from the episode filled television, radio, newspapers, and the blogs for more than a week. Some feared it could spark a public backlash that might doom the March renewal vote for the city's 0.75 percent income tax, which funds services such as police, fire, and garbage collection.

Eventually the mayor signed a City Council resolution apologizing to the Marines. The next month, voters approved the income tax renewal.

The Marines flap received mention again this month from supporters of the Take Back Toledo campaign to recall the mayor.

The group, led by two officials of radio station WSPD-AM (1370), a pair of suburban real estate developers, and the owner of a suburban trucking company, are seeking to place a recall measure on the Sept. 15 primary ballot, two months before the 2009 mayoral election.

The group believes the mayor has embarrassed Toledo, driven it into deeper fiscal crisis, and hindered private investment.

It was the end of an era at Bowling Green State University with the departure of President Sidney Ribeau. The well-liked Ribeau, who led BGSU for 13 years, took the helm of Howard University in Washington in August.

His legacy includes the BGeXperience values program that engages freshman students in critical thinking, learning communities in residence halls, and the President's Leadership Academy that encourages community engagement.

Mr. Ribeau, who arrived at BGSU in 1995, also led the university through a goal-topping capital campaign that raised more than its $120 million target - and a year ahead of schedule.

Carol Cartwright, former president of Kent State University, is serving as interim president while BGSU searches for a permanent replacement for Mr. Ribeau.

In June, a jury in Toledo's U.S. District Court found three local men of Middle Eastern descent guilty of conspiring to kill or injure U.S. troops in Iraq and other countries.

The Toledo case of Mohammad Amawi, Marwan El-Hindi, and Wassim Mazloum produced the first "home-grown" terror cell convictions for plots against American soldiers in the Middle East.

El-Hindi is a U.S. citizen who was born in Jordan; Mazloum came to the United States from Lebanon in 2000, and Amawi was born in the United States and holds Jordanian citizenship.

Once a leading regional retail venue, Southwyck Shopping Center in South Toledo closed in late June after 36 years. The Y-shaped mall at its height in the late 1970s could boast 103 stores, three anchors, and dozens of smaller shops in its "Old Towne" wing.

Just eight shops remained this spring when management announced the closing. The mall had in recent years drawn the most foot traffic from the legions of mall walkers who circled its near-desolate corridors.

A commonly cited factor for Southwyck's decline was that its owners made minimal investment in renovations, resulting in a dated look and feel that eventually put off shoppers.

The mall at 2040 South Reynolds Rd. also faced growing competition from strip malls, open-air developments such as Perrysburg's Town Center at Levis Commons, and especially Westfield Franklin Park, a slightly older mall in West Toledo that in recent years had undergone extensive renovation and expansion.

The most intense Toledo apartment fire in more than a decade ignited early in the morning of July 5 at the Hunters Ridge apartment complex in South Toledo. The blaze engulfed nine buildings and displaced more than 200 residents before it was extinguished by early afternoon. Investigators ruled that fireworks were to blame after witnesses reporting observing people shooting fireworks in the area that night, with some landing atop the first building that caught fire.

Also in July, allegations by Mayor Finkbeiner of inappropriate conduct involving James Hartung, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority's president, resulted in an investigation that on Aug. 1 resulted in a port authority board of directors' vote to fire him.

While the agency so far has refused to make public the internal report that the board reviewed before its vote, e-mails and other documents revealed a multiyear affair involving Mr. Hartung and Kathy Tiegland, a lobbyist the port authority hired to represent it in Washington.

The board specified that Mr. Hartung's firing was "with cause," constituting a denial of severance compensation of about $100,000 and nine months' continuing health insurance to which Mr. Hartung, who had been president since 1994, otherwise would have been entitled. He is appealing that aspect of his termination while the port authority searches for his replacement.

A dizzying whirl of round-the-clock construction work descended on 6044 Edgedale Circle for a week in early September when the ABC reality TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition arrived in West Toledo for Aaron and Jackie Frisch and their 11 sons.

The Frisches, one of five northwest Ohio families considered for the rebuild, were shuffled off on a free trip to Walt Disney World in Florida as thousands of volunteers went about demolishing their old ranch house and replacing it with a much larger and well-furnished two-story home.

The full demolition and building effort, led by the Buckeye Real Estate Group, finished under the allotted 106 hours. And the bustling worksite itself proved an immensely popular attraction, as thousands of people came to observe and marvel as the project unfolded.

On Nov. 16, several hundred people filed into the Whitmer High School gymnasium to watch the show's one-hour broadcast with the Frisch family.

After apparently arguing over cell-phone minutes, police say, 17-year-old Marshall Sosby shot and killed his parents Sept. 23 in their house at 716 Division St., Adrian, about 38 miles northwest of Toledo.

The teenager was charged with two counts of open murder, one count of assault with a dangerous weapon, one count of interfering with a police investigation, and four counts of felony firearms. He faces life in prison if convicted.

And in November, Kristina Adkins, 16, of Lenawee County, was sentenced as an adult to life in prison for fatally poisoning her grandmother in 2006.

Adkins was 13 when she mixed morphine with Virginia Bentley's medication on three consecutive days. The 53-year-old custodial grandmother died a month later.

Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher tossed a football around with his son on a Sunday afternoon in October when he saw Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama campaigning house to house along Shrewsbury Street in Springfield Township.

Mr. Wurzelbacher stepped forward and debated Mr. Obama about his tax plan, arguing that tax hikes for incomes above $250,000 would hinder his own dream of someday owning a plumbing business.

Mr. Obama replied, in part: "It's not that I want to punish your success, I just want to make sure that everybody that is behind you, that they have a chance for success, too. I think that when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."

Conservative pundits seized on Mr. Obama's "spread the wealth around" remark as a nod to socialism. During a debate three days later, Republican rival John McCain made "Joe the Plumber" the centerpiece of his attack on Mr. Obama and later featured him in a TV ad.

Mr. Wurzelbacher gave numerous interviews and made guest appearances on many news programs. He also appeared with Mr. McCain and GOP vice president nominee, Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, during some Ohio campaign stops.

But his sudden celebrity also unleashed a vortex of global media scrutiny on Mr. Wurzelbacher. Most notably, it quickly emerged that 'Joe the Plumber' lacked a state plumbing license.

In his recently published book, Joe the Plumber, Fighting for the American Dream, Mr. Wurzelbacher countered that because his boss was a licensed master plumber, he could work under the boss' license and supervision. He also wrote that he had many misgivings about Mr. McCain's candidacy and got along better with Governor Palin.

The third time was the winner for COSI, the shuttered downtown science center that soon will reopen after a thumbs-up from the voters in November.

A 0.17-mill, five-year levy to revive the science center was soundly approved in the election, after failing in 2006 and 2007. The levy will cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $5.21 per year, according to the county auditor's office. The campaign was boosted by several local companies, which promised to help create exhibits once the museum reopens.

With an expected $1.25 million revenue boost from the levy, museum officials said it likely would reopen by the fall of 2009 - although under a new name, as a Columbus museum owns the rights for the name "COSI."

In November, Sylvania Township voters overwhelmingly rejected the creation of a commission to study a merger with the city of Sylvania, putting to rest an issue that had been debated in the two communities for almost a decade.

The issue was defeated by 73 percent of township voters, although it passed by a healthy 10 percentage point margin in the city. Township Trustee DeeDee Liedel said the results were a strong affirmation of the township form of government.

"Residents are happy with the size, the structure, and the responsiveness of township government," she said. "They didn't want the income tax."

Many township residents were suspicious that a merger would lead to the imposition of the city's 1.5 percent income tax. A study by the University of Toledo's Urban Affairs Department found that extending the tax to township residents would generate $12 million in new revenue, although all but $5 million would be paid by those that work in the township but live elsewhere.

The study also found that increased income tax revenues would allow the merged community to lower property taxes by about $491 annually for a township resident who owned a $100,000 home.

Contact JC Reindl at:

jreindl@theblade.com

or 419-724-6065.



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