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Published: Sunday, 12/28/2008

Finkbeiner bullish on Toledo's prospects for development

BY TOM TROY
BLADE POLITICS WRITER

"There are tons of private investment - an incredible number," the mayor said emphatically at a news conference last week. "We have right now an incredible renaissance taking place in the central business district. You need to look a little beneath the surface."

Critics point to the lack of progress citywide on initiatives the mayor ran on three years ago - restoring Southwyck Shopping Center, completing the Marina District project, and addressing the city's high unemployment rate.

But as 2008 comes to a close, Mr. Finkbeiner remains upbeat, putting a positive spin on his economic development record.

Some of his confidence stems from the successful effort this year - of which he gets part of the credit - in keeping HCR ManorCare in downtown Toledo.

A $32.1 million incentive package backed by the state, the city, the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority, and Lucas County helped retain 716 jobs and add 46, along with a $21.5 million investment in the national company's 333 North Summit St. headquarters.

Another source of pride for Toledo is the rapidly moving construction of the Lucas County multipurpose arena.

The project, overseen by the Lucas County commissioners, is expected to produce economic spin-offs for hotels and restaurants.

It will be the home of the Walleye, the city's minor-league hockey team, and a new arena football team - the Bullfrogs.

A third source of momentum the mayor points to is Toledo's growing reputation, as reported in the national media, as a center of solar-energy innovation and manufacturing.

The caveat to Toledo's successes is the national recession that has driven the city's unemployment rate over 10 percent, the highest of any large city in Ohio.

And many believe the situation may worsen.

Presiding last week at a meeting of his economic development staff, Mr. Finkbeiner ran through a list of projects that he says adds up to a renaissance happening before his eyes.

"We're bulldogs, and with the climate that we are in, it isn't about gaining - if you can, wonderful, but not many are doing it," the mayor said.

"It's about hanging on to what you've got and helping them expand, not letting anybody go that you've got. And these guys and I are tenacious about not losing people for whatever reason if you possibly can," he said.

The administration claims 60 economic development projects were worked on in 2008 with a total projected capital investment of $102.1 million.

The projects cited by the mayor as signs of progress include:

•Triangle Building, an $11.3 million conversion of a former warehouse building into apartments at Anthony Wayne Trail and South Erie Street.

•Hannon Block development, a $2.3 million rehabilitation of 619 Monroe St. into residential and commercial uses.

• The former Western Union Building at North Huron Street and Jefferson Avenue, which is undergoing a $6.1 million conversion to office space for two legal firms.

•Pizza Papalis, a Chicago-style pizzeria expected to open soon on Monroe Street in a long-vacant building adjacent to Fifth Third Field.

There are other projects the mayor cites that are not downtown:

•A wholesale produce company, Al Peake & Sons & Daughter Too, is moving out of the downtown Warehouse District to an expanded space on Stickney Avenue.

•An expansion of the Pepsi Cola Bottlers of Ohio plant at 3245 Hill Ave., an $11.5 million project that will retain 250 jobs and add 25.

Projects that Mr. Finkbeiner would like to include in the project report for 2009 are those that have dominated discussion of economic development for years - the undeveloped Marina District, the vacant Southwyck Shopping Center, the vacant Steam Plant, the vacant Fiberglas Tower, and the struggling Erie Street Market.

Mr. Finkbeiner contends the Marina District is poised for "vertical development" in 2009, meaning construction of new apartments with commercial businesses on the ground floors.

A roadbed for Riverside Drive along the Maumee River through the proposed development is graded and awaits pavement.

He said developer Larry Dillin has liability for $3.5 million of the $10 million road-and-infrastructure project - the first private commitment to the Marina District.

"The goal is to have roadwork done April 1 and then have vertical building taking place in the second quarter," the mayor said.

On Southwyck, the mayor said the city and lawyers for the two out-of-state owners, including Dillards Inc. of Little Rock and managing partner Tom Morgan of Kansas City, are closing in on an agreement to begin environmental cleanup and demolition of the South Toledo complex in early 2009.

Mr. Finkbeiner also says developers David Ball and Jimmy Jackson will begin work on a scaled-back Water Street Station project - at the former Toledo Edison Steam Plant along the downtown riverfront - in early 2009.

And he said two new projects hold great promise:

•Tetra Tech's "riverwalk" proposal for Swan Creek, which would include the Erie Street Market. The California company this year paid $25,000 for an option on city properties along the creek.

•Tower on the Maumee, a proposed $35 million renovation of the shuttered downtown Fiberglas Tower into a 96-room hotel. The project just received a $3 million asbestos cleanup grant from the state.

The mayor's new development director, David Amstutz, said development is not limited to the central business district.

"Even given these challenging times, there's still quite of a lot of activity going on around this city, not only in downtown. We're optimistic some things are going to happen in 2009," Mr. Amstutz said.

Nick Eyde, managing partner of the $35 million project to redevelop the former Fiberglas Tower, said Toledo's downtown business district has a promising future.

"We feel that area is going to be the new entertainment district of Toledo," Mr. Eyde said.

And he said the planned start of asbestos removal early next year gives the firm the backing it needs to start talking with prospective hotel operators.

"I think we can market it now. I've taken groups through there and they're excited," he said.

Mr. Finkbeiner, a Democrat, is on his second go-round as mayor, having served two terms beginning in 1994.

He was prohibited by city charter from running for a third consecutive term but came back in 2005 to unseat fellow Democrat Jack Ford.

But his third term has been dogged by controversy, ranging from his veto of a living-wage waiver needed for the Westgate Village redevelopment in 2006 to his decision to kick a Marine Corps reserve unit out of downtown earlier this year.

The unit had been invited to the city by Toledo police for urban warfare training before being deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, but Mr. Finkbeiner told them to leave town because he felt they could scare unsuspecting citizens who might happen upon the training exercises downtown.

The decision resulted in a firestorm of criticism from across the nation.

Even if Toledo makes a turnaround in 2009, Mr. Finkbeiner has a steep hill to climb in regaining the public confidence that propelled him into office in 2005.

According to an opinion poll conducted in the spring for Democratic mayoral candidate Keith Wilkowski, Mr. Wilkowski would have defeated Mr. Finkbeiner by 59.2 percent to 13.5 percent, with 27.3 percent undecided.

Recently, a group of business executives - some of them Mr. Finkbeiner's supporters in 2005 - formed a committee called Take Back Toledo to launch a recall petition that, if successful at the Sept. 15, 2009, election, would force Mr. Finkbeiner out of office three months before his term expires.

Mr. Finkbeiner, 69, professes to be unconcerned about politics and has not said whether he'll run again.

Jim Ruvolo, a former Lucas County Democratic chairman and a longtime political rival of Mr. Finkbeiner, is pretty sure of what Mr. Finkbeiner will do.

"If he's breathing, he's running," Mr. Ruvolo said.

City Councilman D. Michael Collins, a political independent, said he doesn't agree with Mr. Finkbeiner that the Marina District and Southwyck will see private development in 2009.

And he questioned the mayor's claim that Mr. Dillin has his own money on the line in the Marina District.

"Dillin is not on the hook for $3 1/2 million. If Dillin defaults, we are on the hook. It's another Commodore Perry, Hillcrest, Museum Place," Mr. Collins said.

He was referring to the downtown and near-downtown apartment projects pushed by Mr. Finkbeiner for which the city has been stuck with paying off the debt.

He said Mr. Finkbeiner continues to overcontrol, rather than letting the market function, and if he were grading the mayor's economic development performance, "I'd give him a D."

Toledo City Councilman Frank Szollosi said Mr. Finkbeiner's economic policies have taken Toledo "into the ditch" and that the mayor has failed to build on the cooperative policies set by his predecessor, Mr. Ford.

"Mid-2005 represented the high point this decade for city-county economic development partnership," Mr. Szollosi said.

Mr. Wilkowski resists being drawn into direct criticism of Mr. Finkbeiner but said, "It's hard to claim great success when the city of Toledo has the highest unemployment rate among major cities in Ohio.

"We've heard lots of promises about development projects going forward, but what we're failing to do is prepare ourselves for the kind of economy that can sustain us long-term," Mr. Wilkowski said.

"I think we need to refocus on policies, and not just individual projects."

Contact Tom Troy at:

tomtroy@theblade.com

or 419-724-6058.



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