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Published: Sunday, 12/26/2010

Year in review: Toledo area shows signs of recovery

BIG OIL, big auto, and, surprisingly, big entertainment dominated the business news headlines in 2010.

Locally, it was a year marked by a refinery upgrades and sales, auto-dealer closings and a promise of more auto jobs, an ownership change for local theaters, and a fight over ownership of the region's high-profile amusement-park chain.

Nationally, it was the year of BP's disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the recall of over 6 million vehicles by Toyota Motor Corp., and the successful emergence from bankruptcy by General Growth Properties, the nation's second-largest shopping mall operator and owner of the Shops at Fallen Timbers in Maumee.

There were notable local closings, including garden center Jacob's Garden in Michigan; a notable opening by Plymouth Management Co., the area's first big venture-capital firm; and laudable achievements such as The Blade's reaching its 175th year.

After a stint in bankruptcy, General Motors Co. returned to Wall Street's big board in November with a public stock offering totaling $23.1 billion.

Meanwhile, Perrysburg glassmaker Owens-Illinois Inc. made international news after officials in Venezuela nationalized two O-I bottle-making plants there in October.

Locally, the year began on a high note when BP-Husky Refining LLC said it would spend $400 million on its suburban Toledo refinery for equipment that converts low-octane gasoline into high-octane fuel. In December, BP-Husky had more good news: A planned $2.5 billion upgrade would proceed so the 91-year-old refinery can process heavy oil extracted from Canadian tundra. .

In between, BP had a rougher time. In April, the destruction of a BP-contracted drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico caused the death of 11 workers and ended up releasing over 200 million gallons of crude into the waters off New Orleans. The Gulf spill cost BP nearly $30 billion for cleanup costs and damages compensation. A month earlier, BP's Toledo refinery received a $3 million fine after federal safety inspectors found problems there that were similar to those contributing to a deadly explosion at a BP refinery in Texas in 2005.

Other local firms also made news because of violations of federal safety rules: Cooper Tire & Rubber Co. of Findlay was fined $213,500 for problems related to handling flammable liquids and disposing of combustible rubber dust used in the rubber-making process; Tireman Auto Service Centers Ltd., of Maumee, was fined $177,800 for problems after a 2009 event that injured four workers when an agricultural tire exploded; and Ameriwood Industries Inc., of Tiffin, which makes ready-to-assemble furniture, received a $60,000 fine for issues dealing with safety training and equipment.

Although significant, those fines were small compared with a $16.4 million penalty federal officials levied on Toyota for "knowingly" hiding defects leading to sudden acceleration in 6 million vehicles that it recalled in the United States. This month, $32.4 million was added to the fine. The automaker issued the recall in January after admitting that accelerator pedals on eight models could become stuck.

In contrast, a GM foundry in Defiance got word that the automaker would invest $59 million so it can make castings for a new four-cylinder engine, $115 million so it can cast a new V8 engine block, and $12 million to boost output of engine-block and crankshaft castings.

Left less certain was the future of Chrysler Group LLC's Toledo Assembly complex. Early in the year, Ohio and union officials said the automaker talked of expanding the complex and perhaps adding hundreds of jobs. Even though no the car maker has made no announcement, analysts and other industry experts expect more work and more jobs for the longtime Toledo institution and premier private employer.

Much brighter were the fortunes of the area's solar industry.

A $44 million, 84-acre Juwi Solar Inc. project near Upper Sandusky -- the largest solar power field in Ohio -- began supplying 12 megawatts of electricity to Ohio Power Co. and Columbus Southern Power.

Perrysburg solar start-up Willard & Kelsey Solar Group LLC said it would be ready to produce 120 solar panels daily and add hundreds of jobs. First it said that would occur by the end of this year, but it amended the schedule to early next year.

First Solar Inc., a Toledo-born solar panel giant whose sole U.S. plant is in Perrysburg Township and employs 1,100, said it would open a new U.S. plant with 600 workers by 2012. It hadn't picked a location, but it said Ohio was being considered.

Toledo's Xunlight Corp. said it was readying for three major contracts to produce $70 million in solar panels but this fall revealed it had opened an assembly plant in China early this year. It insisted no Ohio funds were used to build that factory.

On the energy front for consumers, Ohio residents sought a total of $11.2 million in rebates for buying energy-efficient refrigerators, washing machines, and dishwashers. The five-month state program processed 82,665 requests.

Less robust are the local and national real estate markets. Foreclosure-related filings, which stayed high nationally through September, dropped in November in both Ohio and Michigan. Filings were down 21 percent from October in Ohio and Michigan. Local home sales also slumped after a buying credit expired in the spring, and the average home selling price dropped.

Joblessness remained high at year's end, even though it had come down. The unemployment rate in November in Lucas County and Toledo, 10.3 percent and 11 percent respectively, were the lowest this year but high historically.

Michigan, where the jobless rate had led the nation for years, posted a drop in the rate to 12.4 percent last month. Ohio's rate dropped to 9.8 percent, the first time in eight years that the state rate wasn't higher than the nation's.

Notable sales in 2010 included a blockbuster deal in the final month.

Sunoco said early this month that it had sold its Toledo refinery, which it had owned since 1895. The price was $400 million, and the buyer was a private equity firm, PBF Holding Co. of Parsippany, N.J.

The 54,000-square-foot Toledo Masonic Center on Heatherdowns Boulevard was sold at auction to Mohamad Issa, of the Issa Foundation of Ann Arbor, for $100,000.

Iconic Toledo restaurant Tony Packo's Inc., wasn't sold, but its fate was in limbo when Robin Horvath, its chief operating officer and son of the late Nancy Packo Horvath, sued his relatives over the withholding of company financial records and questionable disbursements of company funds. A receiver was appointed to run the company, which owes $2.7 million in loans. The lawsuit is pending.

Closings were a mark of 2010.

Among them, Lyden Co., a $1.5 billion-a-year firm with 320 gas stations, and its sister firm, True North Energy LLC, said they would move their headquarters from the Toledo area to a Cleveland suburb.

The Timberstone Group, a commercial developer, went out of business and its last six properties were sold at auction.

Also shutting were Jacob's Garden in Whiteford Township, Michigan, seven Movie Gallery stores in the region, and the last vestige of Champion Spark Plug on Upton Avenue in Toledo.

Five Chrysler franchises in northwest Ohio -- Ed Schmidt Jeep Eagle in Perrysburg, Bowling Green Jeep, Integrity Motor Sales Inc. in Defiance, Jeep dealer Lima Auto Mall Inc., and Spangler Motor Sales in Oak Harbor -- closed when Chrysler downsized its dealer network.

Bankruptcy led GM to cut its dealer network too, forcing the closure of Ed Schmidt Chevrolet in Maumee, Eisenhour Motors in Pemberville, and Warner Chevrolet in Tiffin.

On the other hand, a significant expansion was announced by O-I, with $18 million in research-related investments resulting in 32 to 35 new jobs in Perrysburg to be filled by highly trained scientists and engineers paid $100,000 or more annually.

Huge milestones for longevity were achieved in 2010, including The Blade reaching its 175th year of providing news to northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan. Also celebrating were Gross Electric Inc., which reached 100 years, and Rudy's Hot Dog, which marked 90.

Among notable changes was the entrance into northwest Ohio of PNC Bank, which put its insignia on 24 northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan banks it acquired from National City Bank.

Health Care REIT Inc. moved its headquarters from downtown Toledo to 4500 Dorr St., the stately former home of Dana Holding Corp. And Steve Weathers, chief executive officer of the Regional Growth Partnership in Toledo, left to head the Savannah (Ga,) Economic Development Authority.

Changing both signs and ownership were four Toledo-area theaters sold by National Amusements to Rave Motion Pictures of Dallas, which a few months later closed its Maumee theater on Conant Street and later sold it to a local church.

Amusement park firm Cedar Fair LP, abandoned a planned takeover by a private equity firm Apollo Global Management LLC in the face of opposition from its biggest shareholder, two Texas mutual funds called Q Investments. The battle continued, however, as the shareholder brokered for two board seats and then pushed to separate Cedar Fair's CEO and chairman positions and to reinstate higher dividends; both issues are to go to a shareholder vote next month.

Other sticky situations for local businesses included Monroe Bank & Trust being put under federal and state regulator scrutiny because of bad loans, and developer Larry Dillin, of Dillin Corp. in Perrysburg having to arrange a five-year payment of $1.08 million in delinquent taxes on part of the Levis Commons development in Perrysburg.

Contact Jon Chavez at: jchavez@theblade.com or 419-724-6128.



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