By Joshua Benton
Where others see decaying warehouses long past usefulness, Dave Root sees restaurants, theaters, and – most importantly – people.
In Toledo’s warehouse district, vacant or near-vacant buildings sit waiting for tenants. Mr. Root, owner of Root Outdoor Advertising, wants to fill them up again, to turn them into venues that will once more draw people downtown.
And he’s put his money where his vision is, so far spending about $1 million to establish what he calls Huron Street Village.
“Suburban people are getting tired of fighting traffic and going to these ugly boxy buildings to do their shopping,” Mr. Root said. “People want a more urban feel.”
It’s a bold plan that will take millions of dollars: turning old buildings into a hip, urban setting. Mr. Root wants to turn a patch of Toledo into a miniversion of New York City’s SoHo.
Mr. Root owns nearly a dozen buildings in the area, roughly bounded by Erie, Huron, Washington, and Lafayette streets. They’ve been in his family for generations, he said; Root Outdoor’s headquarters are on the same block.
He said the economically smart thing to do would have been to tear down the old buildings, most of which date to the early part of this century. His family had covered many of them with pink aluminum siding. “When we took those off, we saw what could be done with these buildings,” he said. “We couldn’t tear them down.”
He hopes to surround the courtyard with venues designed to attract young, mostly upscale suburbanites itching for “a more urban feel.”
His plans include a restaurant, a bar, a one-screen movie theater, art galleries, a health-food market, and a deli.
“It’s going to have a real village feel, and be a big draw downtown,” he said.
Mr. Root said he is not expecting or requesting major financial assistance from the city. He has received about $100,000 in facade improvement grants, and has gotten Mayor Carty Finkbeiner’s promise of funding for sidewalk and street lighting improvements.
Mr. Finkbeiner has lauded Mr. Root for his willingness to put his own money into the project. “This is exactly the kind of private-sector initiative we need,” he said. “It’s a super project.”
Mr. Root said he has received a verbal commitment from “one of Toledo’s top restaurants, a four-star place” to create an establishment in one of the vacant buildings.
Those venues would surround a courtyard which he hopes will become a gathering area, with a fountain and benches.
He expects those attractions to bring nighttime traffic to the area. For daytime traffic, he expects to add a few other businesses and the project’s biggest component, the Root Media Center.
Mr. Root plans to renovate the Berdan Building, at 1 South Erie St., to attract marketing, photography, and other media companies.
“It could be a one-stop stop for people who need media expertise,” he said.
Of a total of 23 commercial spaces projected for the completed project, Root companies will take up six of them. In addition, 12 loft apartments will be on the top floors of buildings.
Plenty of work has been done; the facades of several buildings have been rebuilt.
The neighborhood has a lot of history. When Toledo was part of Michigan, the Huron Street Village area was considered as the site of the University of Michigan.
The neighborhood is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Mr. Root said he has access to two resources that can make the project succeed: advertising and parking. Root Outdoor owns 2,000 billboards across the region, and he said he will be using then to promote the project once it gets going.
Another of his companies, Root Parking Services, controls 500 parking spaces adjacent to the site.
“That will help with one of the biggest problems downtown projects face, which is available parking,” he said.
“When someone drives somewhere, she wants to be able to see her destination from where she’s parked,” Mr. Root said.
He hopes those factors, combined with a national trend toward returning to urban living, will make the project a success.
One of the oft-repeated criticisms of Toledo’s downtown is that its attractions are spread out enough that walking from one to another often requires passage through a less-than-revitalized neighborhood.
But a successful Huron Street Village could help to link up a downtown axis, stretching from the Valentine Theatre and COSI, through the SeaGate Centre and a potential new ice arena, and to the Erie Street Market and Farmers Market.
“Everything will be within walking distance,” he said.
The area is important because it serves as the gateway to the city for travelers coming from the south.
Anyone heading north to downtown from I-75 or the Anthony Wayne Trail drives right through the village on Erie Street.
Mr. Root said he has received many inquiries from businesses interested in locating in the village.
He said the restaurant should be open by the end of the year.