Building Downtown, block by blockWritten by Bruce Rumpf | | firstname.lastname@example.org
While attending Mayor Carty Finkbeiner’s press conference this past summer on the announcement of the $5.8 million construction project of ABLE (Attorneys for Basic Legal Equity) Downtown near the new $100 million multi-purpose arena, I reflected on our Downtown. I was taken back to a rebirth of our Downtown in the late 1980s and Ed Dodd, who was not only the chairman of the largest corporation in Northwest Ohio, Owens-Illinois, with more than 83,000 employees worldwide, but was also chairman of the Toledo Area Chamber of Commerce. I was vice chairman at the time, and as we looked out over the Downtown from our perch on the 28th floor, I asked Dodd why he and George Haigh (chairman of the largest bank in Northwest Ohio, Trust Corp) were working so hard at revitalizing Downtown. Dodd said the Downtown is emblematic of our region and that we should look at it as the heart of our body. If the heart is sick, then the rest of the body is sick. Right now our Downtown is economically sick, and not surprisingly, our region is equally sick.
I would like all of the readers to answer the following questions: 1. When you travel do you usually go to the downtown area (like Chicago or New York)? 2. When you travel to downtowns do you get a sense of what type of community it is (progressive or economically depressed)? 3. When you travel and someone asks, “Where are you from?” do you say “Toledo” in a positive or negative tone or even tend to apologize for being from Toledo? 4. When you travel, do you try to avoid saying you’re from Toledo and say what surrounding community you live in? Like Sylvania, Perrysburg, Oregon, Holland, Springfield, Ottawa Hills, Point Place, Maumee, Monclova etc. 5. After you tell them one of these surrounding communities the next question is, where is that, and you reluctantly say “Toledo.” My guess is many of us answer those questions the same way and not in a proud, positive response. So our Downtown does matter. So why are there so many empty, old unoccupied buildings? Why are there so few retail, fast food or anything that resembles the amenities of the suburbs? Why are there so many misconceptions about the availability of parking or that Downtown is any less safe than the surrounding areas? And finally, what part can we all play in turning Downtown around?
Let’s start this process by understanding that government has done its part, in a big way. If you add up the occupied square footage in our Downtown, government is approximately 62 percent — that’s right, 62 percent — just add the SeaGate Centre, Fifth Third Field and the new multipurpose arena and you begin to understand. Now add One Government Center, public library, First Federal Plaza Building, The Source, the court system (local, state and federal), the Toledo and county health Dept, the fire deptartment, the police deptartment and many others. Some of the occupied buildings Downtown also have a large percentage of governmental agencies. Mayor Finkbeiner, city council and their staffs continually put energy into trying to promote Downtown; the huge cleanup and the infrastructure of the Marina District Project, the success of the Docks Project, whether it is the Farmer’s Market or the (not so easy) Erie Street Market or the new Tetra Tech river walk Project they are doing their job. Our county commissioners, Tina Skeldon Wozniak, Ben Konop and Pete Gerken have been a true force not only in the Fifth Third Field, our successful convention center and the new multipurpose arena but in numerous other successful projects for our Downtown. Downtown Toledo Improvement District, an agency directed by Tom Crothers, is working to implement streetscape improvements and common marketing strategies throughout the downtown.
So if government (our taxes) is doing its job, who isn’t pulling their weight? That’s easy: the business community. That’s right. Where is the leadership? Who are the leaders? Can anyone name the leaders? I doubt it. Seems like any community that is too dependent on government to solve its problems is doomed to fail. And make no mistake, we have failed to take charge of our city and have settled for it being second class. We are told by some in the media that all we have to do is vote for a different party or a different person, to “throw all the bums out.” From where I sit, we have some very good elected officials. I know that nobody wants to believe that, but after being part Downtown for 34 years, that’s my official view.
Please keep in mind that we have some great developers like David Ball. All his projects Downtown are first class. The Warehouse District and Timberstone are good examples of other strong developments. If we had more business people like the Hylant family, who have invested heavily in our Downtown, we would have a terrific Downtown, one that would emit pride. But the reality is that we need the leadership of the business community to step up and help direct the renaissance.
The single most important economic development tool a community has is a multi-purpose arena. Our arena will bring us back to Downtown for hockey, football and concerts. We will be able to book more and larger conventions, bringing in fresh dollars to the Toledo region. Now is the time for the business community to galvanize their efforts.
How can we show leadership by example? City block by city block. Our block, bounded by Jefferson, Erie, Ontario and Monroe streets has recently started our own program called “Adopt Our Block.” Our group consists of property owners and major tenants. We are developing a plan to make sure that our property investment has a greater opportunity to increase in value. We have a common purpose for providing a clean, safe and vibrant block. We are calling it “Creative Village” and are going to execute a plan to attract groups like 1. Artists, painters, musicians, etc. 2. Marketing and advertising creative minds. 3. Inventors and engineers 4. Tech and Web designers. 5. Computer software people. These people need working and living space and we have empty buildings and parking. We are planning on hiring one commercial Realtor who combines knowledge of the market and a business development background for the entire block, rather than having multiple Realtors representing small pieces of the pie. We also share a common denominator, the alley. By day, used for transportation and at night, outdoor cafes, shops and areas to display art. If you have ever been fortunate to travel to truly beautiful older cities, alleys are transformed almost every night and weekends to restaurants, outdoor art and retail shops. Some will say we’re dreamers — we are — believe and you will see.
The next time you travel Downtown, rather than look at that empty building as an eyesore, look at it as an undervalued stock. Just like in the stock market the upside potential of an undervalued stock is much greater than an overvalued stock. It’s time to decide if we are complainers or doers. Do we believe in Toledo or are we just passing through? If we are givers and not takers, who will benefit? We will, our children will, our grandchildren will. We can do this, city block by city block.
Bruce Rumpf is president and CEO of Job1USA.