Midwestern and Rust Belt cities like Detroit plummeted off a cliff decades ago — free-falling into a state of poverty and urban decay — and while Toledo clearly fell part of the way, many stressed that it didn’t crash to the bottom.
Still, once considered a major hub in 1900 and then a powerhouse of business during the 1950s through the early 1970s, Toledo now ranks among American cities with the highest concentrations of poverty and has struggled for years to keep companies and residents from fleeing to the suburbs.
Prosperity slowly slipped away from Toledo over several decades as companies went out of business or moved; downtown retail stores closed their doors, and the city’s nearly steady population decline started from a peak of 392,000 in 1965 to the 2011 estimate of 286,038.
Current population: 286,038
Peak population: 392,000 (in 1965)
Percentage drop: 27 percent
Debt: Toledo’s 2013 general fund is balanced
Percentage of all residents living in poverty: 25.6 percent
Main racial makeup: 64 percent white, 27 percent black
Toledo factoid: Home-ownership rate from 2007-11 was 57.2 percent.
SOURCE: U.S. Census
Jack Paquette, a native Toledoan and retired Owens-Illinois Inc. vice president who is finishing his sixth book on local history, remembers Toledo’s economic and social zenith in the 1950s and 1960s. He also was witness to the decline during the following two decades.
“There was a period in the late 1970s and early ’80s when ‘renaissance’ was the key point of the day and accomplishments were made, but everything fell apart in the 1980s, and it never really recovered, at least the downtown of Toledo,” Mr. Paquette, 87, said.
“The real reason I think downtown Toledo failed over the years was the lack of leadership from the industrial community over the last 20 or 30 years. That all died,” he said. “In my day that was just unbelievable, the amount of time the leaders spent on behalf of the community and that was going on in the community since the 1920s.”
Mr. Paquette said the stewardship of Toledo by titans of industry — the Knights, the Levises, and the Stranahans — was not carried on by the following generations.
Patrick McLean, Toledo’s finance director hired by Mayor Mike Bell, looks at Toledo and Detroit as a “tale of two cities” in which both suffered from the same structural problems but where the smaller of the two handled a financial crisis better.
“I would make the case that we both looked at a really difficult situation in 2010 and Toledo made a collective decision to do something about it and Detroit could not bring itself to do the same,” Mr. McLean said. “Detroit is facing massive service and staff cuts that will no doubt include police and fire, while we have managed to do no mass cuts in service and we are looking to add police and fire.”
Toledo has faced fewer municipal hardships over the last several decades than Detroit. Among them are a lower reliance on the automotive industry, a slower population decline driven by “white flight,” and less municipal debt.
“The population exodus from Detroit is staggering. We have had our own, but Detroit peaked at [1.8 million in 1950] so in percentage terms Detroit has lost more than 60 percent,” Mr. McLean said. “At the same time Detroit was struggling, they had a lot of nearby suburbs actively luring Detroiters into Oakland and Macomb counties, so it was a combination of a push and pull.”
Despite not falling as far, Toledo has lost many of its major corporations, where wages kept the city flush with money to support city services, road repairs, and infrastructure. Over the last decade, the city’s drinking water plant in East Toledo has fallen into disrepair — something Mayor Bell is preparing to tackle with a proposed water-rate increase.
In 1960, Toledo was home to six Fortune 500 companies — more than the average city of its size. Two others were nearby in other communities. The list included O-I, which was then the nation’s 76th largest manufacturer, Dana Corp., Owens Corning, Champion Spark Plug Co., Libbey-Owens-Ford Co., and Electric Auto-Lite Co.
Marathon Oil Co. was in Findlay, and Tecumseh Products Co. was in Tecumseh, Mich.
Toledo peaked with seven Fortune 500 companies from the late 1960s until the early 1980s. Now only Owens Corning, a bankruptcy survivor, remains inside the city limits. Dana Holding Corp., also a bankruptcy survivor, is in Maumee, and O-I is headquartered in Perrysburg.
Former Mayor Carty Finkbeiner noted that, at one time, Toledo factories produced three of the best-known products on the planet: Jeep, Toledo Scales, and Champion Spark Plugs. Only Jeep remains here.
Another notable departure from the city includes Haughton Elevator Co. and its plant in South Toledo. The company was founded in Toledo in 1867. It built a Spencer Street facility in 1916 and became the nation’s third-largest manufacturer of elevators behind Otis and Westinghouse.
In 1957, Haughton merged with the Toledo Scale Co., which was later acquired by Reliance Electric Co. In 1979 Swiss elevator maker Schindler Group AG bought the company and changed its name to Schindler-Haughton before eventually dropping the Haughton. A decade later, the Swiss firm closed the 250,000-square-foot headquarters and plant on Spencer and moved some workers to a smaller facility in the Wolf Creek Business Park in Springfield Township.
The exit of Toledo Scale was seared into the mind of Mr. Finkbeiner.
“I was campaigning for Congress and Toledo Scale was on strike,” Mr. Finkbeiner, 73, said. “It obviously carried our name as a hometown and the thing of it was, that they were not going to Mississippi or Indiana. They went to Columbus. They uprooted and left. ... I will never forget it.”
In 1901, Allen DeVilbiss sold the DeVilbiss Scale Co. to Henry Theobald, who changed its name to Toledo Scale Co. The company went on to become the nation’s standard for an “honest weight.”
Toledo Scale was sold in 1967 to Reliance Electric of Cleveland. In the mid-1970s, the firm employed 1,350 people in Toledo, but by 1976, Reliance moved its Toledo Scale operations to Worthington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus. The firm was sold to a Swiss conglomerate, Ciba-Geigy, and in 1996 Ciba-Geigy sold its scale operation, then known as Mettler-Toledo, to an investment group.
Nothing of the firm is left in Toledo. The last 140 employees in Toledo lost their jobs in 1984, and then in 1985, the 550,000-square-foot manufacturing complex on Telegraph Road was destroyed in a massive fire.
As a young high school teacher at St. Francis de Sales High School, Mr. Finkbeiner read a Saturday Evening Post story about Toledo’s prosperity.
“I remember how it said in 1976, that we were one of the wealthiest cities in a number of different ways,” he said. “We had the third or fourth-highest number of TV sets per household and one of the highest number of cars per household.”
Contact Ignazio Messina at: email@example.com or 419-724-6171.