Great Lakes group asks Toledo for funds


The city of Toledo is being asked to commit $850,000 toward the creation of a National Great Lakes Maritime Museum on the banks of the Maumee River, although officials are confident that money won’t actually be used.

Representatives for the Great Lakes Historical Society pitched their request to a council committee Monday, assuring members the pledge is merely a bureaucratic measure that would allow them to draw on a $6 million grant from the Ohio Cultural Facilities Commission to develop the site in East Toledo’s Marina District. The historical society needs the $850,000 commitment from the city to show it has up-front matching funds as required by the grant terms. However, the society plans to come up with the money itself through fund-raising, executive director Chris Gillcrist said.

“Any fears that the City of Toledo is going to be on the hook for cash are unfounded,” Mr. Gillcrist said. “All it does is satisfy the Ohio Cultural Facilities Commission that the local match has been secured.”

In the event that fund-raising is unsuccessful, the city of Toledo could reclaim the money from the sale of the historical society’s current museum building in Vermilion, Mr. Gillcrist said. The city of Vermilion has offered to buy that building for $1.65 million, he said.

Nevertheless, because the $850,000 would be secured from the city’s capital improvements fund, some infrastructure projects would have to be put on hold, commissioner of debt management David Shriner said. The city has not yet determined what projects would be affected, but street repairs would not be impacted, Mr. Shriner assured.

The Great Lakes Maritime Museum is expected to open in May, 2013. It will have outdoor and interior exhibits on the history of the Great Lakes, including interactive pieces, original artifacts and a theatrical experience with lighting and sound effects, Mr. Gillcrist said. The freighter, the SS Col. James M. Schoonmaker, formerly the SS Willis B. Boyer, will be a showcase exhibit. Mr. Gillcrist said he expects the museum to draw at least 41,000 visitors a year, up from just a few thousand that currently visit the Vermilion location. That’s because the new museum will be more accessible and far larger, he explained.

“It’s going to be the finest museum of Great Lakes history anywhere,” Mr. Gillcrist enthused.

Council president Joe McNamara urged his colleagues to focus on the benefits to the area, insisting the city’s capital improvements dollars would be well protected. His colleague Rob Ludeman agreed council should support the effort.

“This is the connecting point that we’ve been looking for for a long time,” Mr. Ludeman said.

Meanwhile, the sale of the downtown office building known as One Maritime Plaza to the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority is set to go before city council for a vote Tuesday, despite objections from the community development organization, United North.

Attorney Gerry Kowalski, representing United North, urged councilmen Monday to postpone the deal so his client could engage in further negotiations with the parties involved.

The American Maritime Officers’ pension fund owns the building, constructed in 1982 with the help of a $2 million federal loan administered by the city. Under the terms of that loan, repayment was to go directly to United North’s predecessor, North River Development Corp., to help fund community development efforts. However, the maritime officers’ group maintains it never made any profit from the building and therefore did not make payments to United North.

Mr. Kowalski argued his client has a legal stake in the building. The current sale terms allow the Port Authority to purchase One Maritime Plaza for $143,000 in cash, with a commitment to spend $757,000 on upgrades. The cash would go to United North along with three other properties now owned by the maritime officer’s trust: the boarded-up St. James Hotel on Summit Street at Lagrange Street, and two nearby surface parking lots.

That compensation is inadequate, Mr. Kowalski said, based on a $900,000 “as-is” appraisal of the building in October. If the sale price were higher, United North would have some money to fix up the St. James Hotel, Mr. Kowalski indicated. Without it, the historic former hotel will continue to deteriorate, he said.

But Matthew Sapara, chief operating officer for the Port Authority, defended the deal, saying One Maritime Plaza’s repair needs were identified by a contractor after the appraisal was complete. He urged the sale move forward quickly to avoid any further deterioration in the structure or the loss of current tenants, which include the Port Authority.

“Our motivations are pure. We honestly believe we are the organization that can stabilize that building,” he said.

Council agreed to put the proposed sale on its Tuesday agenda. However, the body will leave until a later date a decision on whether to transfer the cash proceeds and the St. James hotel to United North.

Terry Glazer, United North’s chief executive officer, expressed disappointment with the move.

“What’s going to happen is the Saint James hotel is not going to be developed,” Mr. Glazer said. “Anther historic building is in danger of being let go.”

Contact Claudia Boyd-Barrett at or 419-724-6272.