A Downtown MayorWritten by Jim Harpen | | firstname.lastname@example.org
The Toledo mayoral candidates had their first broadcast TV debate last week.
The candidates were polite.
(Should have invited Opal Covey. Would have made this interesting.)
No one exchanged barbs.
(Maybe I can find “Wheel of Fortune” on a Detroit station …)
Not a single candidate revealed anything new about what they’d do as Mayor of Toledo.
(Nice outside, maybe I’ll go for a walk.)
But, then they finally got to something that I really care about. The state of Downtown Toledo and their plans to liven it up.
Downtown Toledo is important to me. So much so that I’m moving my new business into a grand old building in the heart of the city. But downtowns are vitally important to any city. As Winnipeg Free Press columnist Nicholas Hirst wrote of his city, “Winnipeg has many things going for it, but without that vibrant downtown, it remains a city without a soul: more a collection of suburbs, shopping malls and big-box sites than a true urban centre.”
When I moved back to Toledo from Fort Lauderdale three years ago, I was bummed out on my first foray back into the Central Business District. Downtown Toledo probably hadn’t changed much since I moved down south, but the contrast between up here and down there was depressing. Where were the businesses? Where were the jobs? Where were all of the people?
The people went with the jobs, and the jobs that stayed in the Toledo area went to the ’burbs. According to the latest census figures, there are about 12,000 people working in Downtown Toledo — by some estimates about 60 percent of them government employees. By contrast, Maumee’s Arrowhead Park has about 14,000 workers — very few of them drawing government paychecks.
Like any other near-lifelong Toledoan, I’ve seen the ups and downs of Downtown. I’m old enough to remember when Downtown was dying in the 1970s. I saw it emerge as a source of pride and the hub-of-fun in the mid ’80s, only to see it slip again during the downsizing of the 1990s. New life is coming Downtown again and small businesses are trying to become part of it. With the near completion of the arena and renovation of the former Fiberglas Tower and other landmarks, we’re seeing an upswing and a trickle of downtown business immigration. But sustaining growth has been the blind spot in so many previous downtown resurgence visions.
What our next mayor must do is make sure this upswing is sustainable.
So, Mr. Next-Mayor, hire professionals to do the job. Not professional civil servants who’ve drawn government paychecks for decades. Not your top campaign volunteers. Not the daughter of a political ally. I’m talking real “in the trenches” development professionals.
“I don’t think there should be anyone in economic development who hasn’t been in commercial real estate,” says Steve Lennex, President of Lennex Realty, a commercial real estate brokerage. “We’re on the front lines. We have a skill set and a mindset that people in government don’t have. We know how to get deals done. And there’s always a sense of urgency because we don’t get paid unless we produce. With [government] economic development people, it’s a matter of who’s going to get the credit.”
Credit = News Conferences = Re-election, and maybe even higher office. So politicians typically spend all their might swinging for grand slams that garner the most credit. Bunts and base hits that create just a few jobs don’t get them on the all-star list.
Toledo needs to make it easier on small businesses, particularly those looking to locate Downtown. Downtown Toledo is not going to land a new world headquarters from out of town. No company is going to plop down a few thousand employees at the corner of Adams and Huron. The Downtown work force is going to be rebuilt by small business, one employee, one square foot of office space, one block at a time.
Here’s an idea for our next mayor to consider: There’s nothing wrong with taking credit for staying out of the way. Let small businesses do what small businesses do best — grow, make money and create jobs.
E-mail columnist Jim Harpen at email@example.com.