Can Toledo re-invent itself?Written by Dan Johnson | | email@example.com
Many Toledo citizens read with great concern the May 10 Washington Post article by Peter Slevin on Toledo’s economic condition. I read it here in Dubai, as a friend living near Washington sent it to me. This friend happens to be a distinguished urban historian who has studied and conducted research on American cities for more than three decades. In his e-mail message to me, he raised the question, “Can Toledo reinvent itself?”
I’ve pondered this question for the past few weeks and wondered if it is possible for Toledo to have a new beginning, a fresh start that is geared to the future, aligned with the new economy and emerging opportunities. Is it possible, I wondered, for Toledo to shed those elements of its past that are holding it back and limiting its ability to compete in the global economy? Can Toledo reinvent itself in ways that will make it possible for families to stay and to attract new residents who want to work and live in Toledo because of the strong economy and the prospects for an even stronger economic environment in the future?
As I thought about these questions, I began thinking about cities that have “reinvented” themselves in America and abroad. I remember well the history and photos of Pittsburgh during the 1940s and 1950s, and how the dirt and smog nearly killed the city. Historians note that the smog was so heavy in Pittsburgh that the street lights burned during the day. In 1946, the Pittsburgh renaissance began, a process that changed the city. By the 1970s, historic buildings were renovated for new uses while shops, restaurants, offices and entertainment provided the “anchor” for the historic riverfront. It is reported that Station Square, Pittsburgh’s major attraction, has more than 3.5 million visitors annually. The reinvented Pittsburgh now boasts of being ranked as one of the World’s Most Livable Cities.
In the 1960s, I studied at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, Texas. Today, Fort Worth is the 17th largest city in the United States and is widely known as a cultural and economic center in the Southwest. But that has not always been the case. For decades in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Fort Worth was known as a rough “wide open” cow town. Following World War II, the business and political leaders of the city charted a new course for Fort Worth. By the mid-1960s, Fort Worth had reinvented itself to become a major “metropolis.” Now headquarters to more than 50 major companies and corporations and home to numerous institutions of higher education, Fort Worth is an example of a “reinvented” city.
Professor Robert Talbert, in his book, “Cowtown – Metropolis: Case Study of a City’s Growth and Structure,” charts the critical role of leadership in the reinvention of this cultural Mecca of the Southwest. As a university student I sat in many of Talbert’s classes as he lectured on the capacity of cities to reinvent themselves using Fort Worth as an example.
There are other good examples of cities that have reinvented themselves. I think of Charlotte, which is now the largest city in North Carolina and 19th largest in the United States. While Charlotte has always played an important role in the history of the South, it remained largely a cotton processing center and railroad hub until the 1970s and 1980s. With the strong leadership of financier Hugh McColl, Charlotte “reinvented” itself to become one of the leading financial centers in the United States. That leadership has been leveraged to attract numerous Fortune 500 headquarters and home offices of many international companies.
Now, living in Dubai, we see on a daily basis a city that is literally “reinventing” itself before the eyes of the world. Arial photographs of Dubai in the 1950s and 1960s show a small town of a few thousand residents. While there was some benefit to the city from oil revenues, it was clear to the leaders of Dubai that they had to diversify the economy if the city was to grow and thrive. Today, oil revenue is a very small percentage of the Dubai budget, perhaps 5 percent or less. Tourism, finance, real estate development, transportation and other sectors are driving the economy.
Cities can re-invent themselves. My friend’s question, “Can Toledo reinvent itself?” leads me to believe that, “Yes” it can be done. Perhaps the more difficult question is, “Should Toledo seek to ‘reinvent’ itself?” If the answer to that question is “Yes,” then who is going to lead this effort? And what are the strengths on which Toledo can reasonably “reinvent” itself?
Fortunately, Toledo has a rich menu of strengths on which it could build a “New Toledo.” It has major assets in higher education including health and medical education and research. UT President Dr. Lloyd Jacobs, has pointed to this enormous asset and suggested that we think of Toledo as a “university” town. Health care could easily become the basis for “reinventing” Toledo based on the considerable assets in this growing sector. Alternative energy will become one of the major drivers of the 21st century economy. Toledo is well positioned to become an international leader if it begins now to leverage fully its good start in this rapidly growing sector.
Can it happen? Yes.
Will it happen? That is up to the citizens and leaders of our city. Our success as a city will not come from Columbus or Washington, D.C. It has to come from us.
Dan Johnson is provost and COO, Zayed University, U.A.E. and UT president emeritus.