Walking a mile (or six) in Mike Bell’s shoesWritten by Michael Miller | Editor in Chief Emeritus | firstname.lastname@example.org
At the apex of the High-Level Bridge, Mayor Mike Bell shook hands with a Toledoan crossing the other way. The man leaned close to the mayor and spoke about his problems as the city skyline strained to compete with the bridge to touch the cloud-streaked blue sky. Bell took out his ever-present cellphone and entered the man’s phone number, promising someone from the city would be in touch. The man, grateful at his luck in meeting the mayor in such an unlikely place, moved on, clearly convinced his concerns would be addressed to his satisfaction.
An hour later, at the base of the Craig Memorial and Veterans’ Glass City bridges, a woman walking her dog confronted Bell about the conditions of some of the landscaping circling the new park in front of the Schoonmaker museum ship. She expressed frustration with what she said were prematurely dying trees and flowers. Bell, brandishing his cellphone like a wizard clutches his magic wand, promised to get a crew to look at the park. The woman, amused at her luck in meeting Bell in such an unlikely place, moved on, clearly unconvinced her concerns would be addressed to her satisfaction.
In between the two bridges, during a two-hour, nearly six-mile walk on Oct. 17, Bell, wearing Nike sneakers, a blue University of Toledo Under Armour running suit and a rodeo ballcap emblazoned with “Cinch Up and Hang On!” talked candidly about his in-progress legacy, challenger D. Michael Collins and many of the criticisms leveled at his administration. Bell, 58, moves at a pace many men half his age would envy. He said the main difference between this run and his campaign against Keith Wilkowski in 2009 is not the opponent; it is him.
“I have more experience from being mayor; this is not my first campaign. I know what to expect a little bit better,” he said. “The key portion is that I have experience.”
It is no secret that, professional courtesy aside, Bell and Collins do not like each other.
“Typically on Council, [Collins] can put the stick in the spokes but nobody really gets a chance to question him back. He’s sitting there with 11 others and it’s their space,” Bell said. “When we do these debates, it’s me and him now, so I’m enjoying the heck out of this. He has to be able to explain what he’s doing and it becomes a little bit more clear to people that a lot of times he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.
“I’ve been in city government in a leadership position for a long period of time. So if I say something, I know somebody is going to fact-check it so I wouldn’t be making stuff up like his budget deficit claims, something that crazy, if it wasn’t true. And he should know that. But, what I think he’s attempting to do is marginalize how successful we’ve been as an administration to do that — taking the loss from $48 million to $8 million.”
While climbing the incline of the High-Level Bridge, morning traffic rattling the concrete beneath our feet, we saw signs of human detritus where people sleep in the bridge stairwells: clothes, food containers, broken glass. I asked Bell about the criticism that his administration’s cuts have hurt the local homeless population.
“The funding that we have put into rapid housing is a federal mandate. With the issues we had in our Department of Neighborhoods, we’re following every rule to the T. We’re crossing all T’s and dotting all I’s and if they’re telling us this is what we need to do, that’s what we’ll do,” Bell said. “Now if people are in disagreement with that and they think more money needs to be put into the homeless portion, what we have to be able to dois to shift it from the general fund, because there’s not more coming from the federal government. That could be done at any time. But I think what most people want to do is they want to talk about it, they don’t really want to do anything and they want to blame somebody for it. And that’s why we get into this discussion.”
Collins has talked about cutting into the neighborhoods department, getting rid of some of the commissioners and managers, to save money. Does Bell agree with that?
“I absolutely don’t,” he said. “I believe he doesn’t have an understanding of managing any departments in the City of Toledo because he’s never managed anything. So when he makes those comments, it’s not based on any experience. It’s just based on assumption, no different than somebody who’s never been in the position trying to say — OK, if you’ve never played football, trying to tell the coach what he should do on the field. It’s no different than that. You assume because you watch from a distance that you know all the details that go into that but you really don’t. Think about it. He’s never managed anything. So when he starts saying that stuff, what’s he using for an experience base?
“He was the union president; he’s never had command of any people where he was ultimately responsible. So to make comments on what he would do when he’s never done it, I think, just shows a bigger void in his knowledge of how to run a governmental system.”
Bell and Collins differ sharply on courting foreign investment. Bell has made several trips overseas while Collins said the focus needs to be on supporting Toledo businesses. Bell said the move to international development was inevitable.
“If you go back to 2010, and we’re talking about economic growth, it wasn’t going to come from anywhere in the United States at that particular time. But we had a lot of foreign economic growth occurring throughout the world,” Bell said. “So for me it was just a matter of going where the money is and we covered a couple of areas where there are large sums of money. From India and China to Germany, you go where the economy can possibly support new ideas and be able to bring them back to your city.”
Bell said the work on that front is far from complete.
“There’s more to do and I think other cities now are starting to pick up what we’re doing and stealing some of our ideas. The mayor of Findlay was in Japan last month. The governor of Michigan was in China last month. So obviously we’re not the only ones to see the potential of foreign investment and it’s a competitive world,” he said. “So what I’m trying to do is get Toledo there before anyone else so we can establish those relationships that help us before the other cities soak it up.
“Mr. Collins wants to take us back to where we were. So if people like that, if they like nonmovement, if they like people not coming to our city, then he’s their mayor,” Bell said. “But it sounds like, once again, he’s uneducated as to the value of a global economy. You can’t talk about world economy and sit in your house. That’s like talking about regionalism and not going out to visit the commissioners or trustees of other cities.”
Collins said he wants to “take the veil of secrecy away” from Marina District developer Dashing Pacific and commit the company to a timeline. Bell said that is the wrong message to send to developers watching Toledo from around the world.
“Dashing is helping us more than we’re helping them. Dashing isn’t short on cash; Toledo is,” Bell said. “So threatening a company that has paid you for the land and is paying about $100,000 a year in taxes that you’re going to take something away from them — oh, my goodness. Why don’t we take the steam plant back from [David] Ball and [Jim] Jackson? What if we take the Eyde’s building back? What about other people who invest here? We’re not picking on them. We’re not talking about taking it back from them or running them out of town. So the question is, does my opponent have a blind spot on certain issues?
“It sounds like he’s stuck somewhere in the ’50s and we’re in 2013. And his behavior sometimes reflects that he’s not open to diversity; he’s very stuck in a single dimension and that can be problematic for a city that’s attempting to be international.”
Closer to home
Bell has also been credited with strengthening the city’s relationships with the surrounding suburbs.
“People in the suburbs are extremely fearful of this election because they know how much work we’ve done together and it’s starting to work for everybody,” Bell said. “The idea of changing leadership at this particular point in time is spooky for everybody because we now have actually very civil relationships where it’s actually working out economically for all of us. And so that becomes problematic on even regional growth.
“Look at Ottawa Hills, which didn’t deal necessarily with the City of Toledo; we have absorbed their fire department. It’s a mutual agreement between both of us, it’s working well and it’s making money for both sides. It cut the debt on their side and gave us a little extra cash on our side. We got 10 firefighters and everybody’s happy about the service.”
Bell said there are discussions with other suburbs about taking over safety services but “politically, I don’t think anybody’s ready to move yet.”
Bell said he does not anticipate any major shake-ups in his administration if he wins a second term. Looking back, he said it was a loss to his team when former Deputy Mayor Dean Monske left the city to run the Regional Growth Partnership (RGP).
“He did a heck of a job while he was with us and the biggest part of economic development, a lot of times, is the personality of the person in the position. People like him don’t come around every day so it took a little time to adjust,” Bell said. “But I think we’re starting to get our flow again.”
We stood at the top of the bridge, watching the Maumee River flow along The Docks and Promenade Park. I asked Bell about Toledo’s inability to capitalize on its waterfront, as cities like Lansing and Grand Rapids have.
“When you try to compare us to Grand Rapids, they had a lot of the very rich people who live in Grand Rapids and used their own money to turn that around. We have people here that could actually do the same thing,” Bell said.
“Look at what we’re trying to do at Promenade Park. If you’ve gone along the back of Levis Square we have all these restaurant carts come in so people are sitting outside. Part of the reason we lost our boating traffic is because enforcement got so tough that people wouldn’t come Downtown because they were getting stopped two and three and four times. They said they just couldn’t take it and they’d rather go north than come here, so it stopped our boating traffic.
“The problem is not that we don’t have a pretty Downtown or that there’s nothing going on down here — people didn’t want to come past that span bridge because they knew they’d have to face being stopped two or three times and it just got to be, to them, very harassing. The enforcement people are doing what they thought was their job but there’s got to be a better way to have some accountability.
“We have to have that carrot on the stick to be able to get people back down here and that’s part of why we’re changing the face of what Promenade Park looks like. We know we can do it. And if we team up with possibly the Huntington Center and their concert series and being able to do things in the Downtown area, we got a winner. We’ve got everything else working.”
Collins has emphasized a perception that Bell’s administration tangles small businesses in red tape.
“What I’m seeing is 30 businesses moving into the city of Toledo in the last year,” Bell said. “If it was that difficult they wouldn’t be moving in. We’re trying to become more user-friendly. I guarantee we’re better than we were four years ago, but it’s a work in progress. And sometimes people don’t want to follow rules. The rules are designed not for the administration, but for the people we are serving. Once again, it’s very easy for Mr. Collins to say what he would do but he’s never done it.
“There are state rules that apply to some of these things, there are federal regulations; it’s not just Toledo rules. With the amount of paperwork that comes through our area, it’s a lot different than one little business going out to Perrysburg. We deal with multiple things all at the same time.”
Is there an easier way?
“I would love to see a one-stop shop,” Bell said. “But you’d have to be able to blend two different branches of government, the county and the city. Even though we’ve got the bigger portion say, shifted from the county to us, [the county would say] ‘Uh, we don’t want to lose control.’ And if you shift it the other way, it could become problematic for the city. But I think there’s a way to find a middle ground. You just have to be able to sit down and talk about it. But once again you have to have trust in relationships to be able to do that.
“Let me give an example. We had a guy come in from Texas after reading the Forbes magazine article on what we’re trying to do in Toledo. He’s an investor, he represents an investment company. They want to spend somewhere, they have millions to invest in places like Cleveland. So I got on the phone right away with Dean Monske at the RGP to say, ‘Look, this is at a different level than what we do as the city but this is right in your wheelhouse.’ So we all chat, the gentleman comes in from Texas, I turn him over to Dean, and he’s been working with him. Before it would have been, ‘That’s not my job but I’m not turning him over to you.’ Why would I do that?
“I’m the guy that Mr. Collins is trying to paint as the anti-business person when I’m the one endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, I’m the one endorsed by the Rotary, I’m the one endorsed by all these people that do business.”
I suggested we turn around and re-cross the bridge to Downtown, but Bell insisted on moving forward. We entered the stairwell that leads to the East Side and walked along Yondota Street, a neighborhood that does not radiate friendly vibes. Bell walked with the confidence of a man escorted by a pack of armed bodyguards.
I did not.
The Marina District
We traversed the path behind The Docks and walked through the heart of the Marina District. Bell stopped and lingered to talk about the property; he knows this land will ultimately provide a great deal of judgment on his legacy.
“Now this area here, we gained $3.8 million. What people forget is that the economy of Toledo is hurting. So we were having … what some people call a fire sale. Trying to keep our ship moving. $3.8 million,” Bell said. “Now, Mr. Collins and some of these people argue, ‘We put $43 million into it!’ If you put $100,000 into your house and the appraisal comes back at $75,000, you’re not getting $100,000. You can’t use that argument. It had to be cleaned up before anybody could do anything. The appraisal rate is what Dashing Pacific paid and never at any point in time did the appraisal come back and say it was worth $43 million. They bought it at the appraised rate. That’s not even an argument.
“As I said earlier, they’re paying $100,000 in taxes that go to the county. When Mr. Collins talks about buyback, you’d take city money and give back exactly what was paid, $3.8 million, no interest. And then we don’t collect the $100,000 on taxes and the wind’s blowing through here again because he doesn’t have any ideas for the property. And there’s maintenance costs.”
I asked Bell if he is even sightly disappointed that three years after the groundbreaking there has been little visible progress on the site.
‘No,” he said immediately. “You have to wait until the opportunity occurs. Business is doing what business does. Forbes, Wall Street Journal, New York Times, China Daily, National Journal — all of them understand what we’re trying to do.”
Accentuate the positive
At some point along the Marina District waterfront, our walk evolved from me leading the way, if I ever really had been, to Bell dictating our path, to the new park at the National Museum of the Great Lakes. It is a magnificent area, with an image of the Great Lakes embossed in the center of the concrete.
“We can create here, but it had to be cleaned up first,” Bell said. “So what is happening down here at this end is the Great Lakes museum and the Schoonmaker. It’s unbelievable.”
Bell and I crossed the Craig Street bridge and walked south on Summit Street. He pointed to new businesses with pride and closed businesses with a determination tinged with anger. As we passed a city truck rumbling north, I asked Bell about one of his more controversial moves. Bell knew at the time, and is reminded constantly now, that his 2010 use of exigent circumstances to cut city workers’ wages and his 2011 support of Senate Bill 5, which would have restricted public employee collective bargaining, came at the expense of union support.
“Well, I figure they’re going to hold a grudge against me until some of them die,” Bell said. “I did the right thing for our city because I needed to leverage our unions to be able to get the concessions necessary to keep everybody working. We had 271 layoffs scheduled. But I didn’t lay off any of those 271 people, so I did what I had to do and they’ve got to do what they’ve got to do and I’m OK with that.”
Man in charge
Some have said Bell is an ambassador while Deputy Mayor Steve Herwat is the de facto day-to-day operations mayor. For the first time on our walk, Bell is dismissive of the question.
“I learned from being a fire chief that on the site of a burning building, the chief stays outside and directs,” Bell said. “A chief who runs into the building and abandons his post risks the lives of every man on the scene. Does President Obama go into every burning building? Does John Kasich? The chief, the captain, the mayor has to know his place as manager and has to trust the people he delegates to.”
As we approached Bell’s car, parked on Huron Street its intersection with the Monroe Street, Bell, as fresh-looking and energetic as he had been six miles ago, said, “This is my last election. Win or lose, after this I am done. I will not recycle myself on City Council or school board or anywhere else. If I serve four more years, it will be time for someone new.”
“But not yet” I half-stated, half-asked.
“No,” he smiled. “Not yet.”
Michael S. Miller is editor in chief of Toledo Free Press and Toledo Free Press Star. Email him at email@example.com.