The big dig-out; 2 die from weather; Travel is hazardous

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 1

Saturday was the day of the storm. Yesterday was the day to dig out.

After the nastiness of 1999’s opening blast of snow, Toledo took to shovels and plows yesterday to slowly clean up nature’s mess.

As the day wore on, the shifting snow dunes shrank to more manageable piles, and the area’s major roadways again became fair game for drivers. Restaurants and stores caked by snow in the morning started to open by afternoon.

In the end, about eight inches fell on Toledo, with up to 15 inches reported in the surrounding area.

At least two deaths were attributed to the storm. In Lenawee County, 40-year-old Mark Gore was killed yesterday when his vehicle was broadsided by another vehicle that had run a stop sign. And in Toledo, an 84-year-old woman, Alice Dickerson, died yesterday after walking outside of her retirement community and falling in the snow.

And while the storm has passed, northwest Ohio and southeastern Michigan will be feeling its effects for a while longer, as cold weather and heavy winds will continue today. Road crews in Toledo said they hope to have all residential streets cleared by tomorrow morning – if everything works according to plan.

They, along with other crews throughout the region, faced a network of roads hard hit by the storm. Hundreds of plows cleared roadways, only to see more snow blow in, or freezing rain coat them with layers of ice.

In Toledo, the city’s division of streets, bridges, and harbor sent more than 100 pieces of equipment out on the streets, including 38 front-line salt trucks and 31 other city vehicles equipped with plows. Private contractors were put in charge of hauling snow out of downtown Toledo.

By afternoon, the city had completed clearing all major streets in Toledo and were making their way to bus routes and areas near schools and hospitals. A few crews were also working on residential streets, and city officials predicted that 90 per cent of city streets would be passable by this morning.

By this morning, city crews will have spread almost 4,000 tons of salt, said Jesse Graham, superintendent of the streets, bridges, and harbor division.

Road crews clearing the roads ran into a few problems from snowmobilers taking advantage of the weather conditions. “I had two guys pass me on snowmobiles while I was plowing on Alexis Road,” said city worker Tom Stelmaszak. “It’s a problem with us trying to do our jobs.”

They will have to fight Mother Nature some more. Forecasts of freezing rain overnight meant city officials expected to have to pull crews from residential areas to refocus on major streets.

The Ohio Department of Transportation’s District 2 had at least 80 plows in the eight counties of northwest Ohio overnight Saturday through yesterday, and they were still at full force yesterday afternoon. ODOT crews have been working in two 12-hour shifts since midnight Saturday.

“We are doing our best.” said James Faught, ODOT spokesman. “But the freezing rain Saturday made it more of a difficult situation.”

In some areas, trucks dropped salt, only to have it blown right off the roadways before it could have any effect.

To keep the main routes open, ODOT pulled the trucks off the less traveled U.S. and state routes, Mr. Faught said.

As of early last night, crews were still working on the region’s main routes: I-75, I-475, I-280, U.S. 24, State Rt. 2, U.S. 20, and U.S. 20A.

Southern Michigan faced some of the heaviest snowfalls. Tecumseh residents were warned to stay indoors after the city got hit with about 15 inches of snow Saturday night.

“The whole county is under a snow emergency,” Tecumseh police officer Jim Less said. “We had knee-high drifts.

“The roads in town are not so bad, but many county roads are pretty bad,” he said.

Ray’s Perrysburg Marathon, the area’s largest AAA emergency road service provider, reported 160 runs yesterday and 190 Saturday. That’s more than double of what could be expected on a regular winter weekend, said dispatcher Tom Carroll.

Some of Toledo’s biggest institutions took the day off. The Toledo Museum of Art and the Center of Science and Industry both shut down; in the museum’s case, it was the first closing in almost 20 years. Churches all across the city canceled Sunday services, and school districts scrambled to see whether classes could be held today.

School wasn’t scheduled to reopen from its holiday break until Tuesday in Toledo Public Schools, and officials at all suburban and most area schools decided last night not to try to open their districts today. All Catholic elementary and secondary schools in Toledo are closed.

Among the people daring to try the roadways Saturday night were the appropriately named Jesse and Sharon Slusher of Springfield Township.

The Slushers were shopping for a heater at The Andersons in Maumee, one of the few stores that opened for business yesterday.

At the Powerhouse Gym on Central Avenue, snow didn’t stop some people from working on their New Year’s resolutions, or working off their excess holiday pounds.

“What else is there to do today?” asked Hal Reidl, 55, who was pumping iron there yesterday. “I was surprised they were open.”

The storm’s impact reached out onto the icy cover of the Maumee River. On Saturday night, Bob Hensley was working as the shipkeeper of the Wolverine, a freighter on the river, when the storm hit. The ship became coated with sheets of ice.

“I was out there hitting it with a ballpeen hammer to get the ice off,” Mr. Hensley said.

He said the ice on the freighter was three to four inches thick, and that the accumulated weight made the ship sink almost four feet lower than normal. Had it gone much farther, he said, water would have come into some of the portholes and possibly sunk the freighter.

Yesterday afternoon, Mr. Hensley was relaxing inside at Tony Packo’s Cafe in East Toledo. Manager Tom Luettke said the restaurant was doing only one-tenth of its normal business, but he decided to open because of the number of regular customers who lived within walking distance.

The owners of the Uncle John’s Pancake House on Secor Road advertised on radio and television that drivers of emergency vehicles or plows would get free pancakes and coffee. Co-owner Mary Baumann said about 25 workers took the restaurant up on its offer.

And while Uncle John’s stayed busy – serving the Brown University women’s basketball team, a wedding party of 25, and walk-ins from the dialysis center across the street – it did about half of their normal Sunday business, Ms. Baumann said.

At the BP gas station across Secor Road – one of the few stations in West Toledo to remain open for all of Saturday night – business was steady and strong yesterday.

“It’s been all coffee, gas, and the paper,” said clerk Julie Boone.

The roadways weren’t the only transportation area bothered by the storm.

Amtrak canceled operation Saturday and yesterday of the Pennsylvanian, which runs from Philadelphia to Chicago through Pittsburgh and Toledo. It ran only from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh both days. Amtrak also canceled the Wolverine, from Chicago to Detroit, yesterday. The cancelations were caused by weather-related equipment malfunctions.

At Toledo Express Airport, all five major airlines – American, Northwest, Continental, US Airways, and Comair – canceled flights. But airport director Ralph “Chip” Hannon said the cause was not at Toledo Express, which kept both of its runways operating. Instead, he blamed other airports, like Chicago and Detroit, which faced larger problems.

It took all of the airport’s crews and snow-cleaning equipment to maintain the runways in working condition, Mr. Hannon said.

TARTA maintained all of its regular routes over the weekend but had delays of up to an hour on Saturday and of five or 10 minutes yesterday.

When the storm hit, counties across the region declared snow emergencies, which limit travel in the affected areas. A Level One emergency is a warning of icy and snowy roads; Level Two means that motorists should travel only if necessary; Level Three means the roads are closed to all except emergency personnel.

Ohio counties that declared a Level Three emergency were: Lucas, Wood, Sandusky, and Seneca.

Lucas County lowered its emergency to a Level Two about 1 p.m. yesterday, and officials said it should be changed to a Level 1 early this morning.

Toledo city officials said garbage collection will continue as scheduled today. All city and county offices, except for Toledo Municipal Court, will be open today. All libraries in the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library system also plan to be open.

The storm inconvenienced more than 2,000 residents in Clyde, who lost power for more than three hours Saturday night when snow knocked out an electrical substation, a Toledo Edison spokesman said.

Toledo Edison also responded yesterday to several reports of power loss throughout the Toledo area, but all were resolved quickly, spokesman Richard Wilkins said.

Toledo area Metroparks were closed yesterday morning but began opening just before 1 p.m., spokesman Art Weber said.

Blade staff writers Mike Sigov, Ignazio Messina, Dee Drummond, Tony Bassett, and Jack Baessler contributed to this report.

Funding plan may be a hit for Mud Hens

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 1

Last year, the Toledo Mud Hens were losers on the field and off.

The team went 52-89, tying a record for the most losses ever in a Mud Hens season. And voters crushed a proposed tax increase to pay for a new stadium downtown.

But like a losing team regrouping for spring training, the Mud Hens tried again this week, proposing a stadium on the East Toledo riverfront.

Politicians have called the location a loser. But stadium supporters may have gained something more important than a site. They may have discovered a way to pay for a ballpark without asking voters to pick up most of the tab.

“This is a real shift to the private sector and away from tax dollars,” said Ed Bergs mark, chairman of the Toledo Mud Hens board of directors.

But the proposal’s financing package might be the only thing that survives from Monday’s announcement. That’s because the team’s controversial choice of a site has made local officials nervous. They say that tearing down an 80-year-old factory on the site could cost millions.

“I’ve heard it’ll take $15 [million] to $20 million to remediate that property,” said Sandy Isenberg, president of the board of Lucas County commissioners, which will make all site selection decisions. “If that’s the case, forget it.”

Team officials made their proposal Monday to the commissioners: You obtain this land in East Toledo, the site of the old Toledo Edison Acme plant. Give it to us for free and we’ll take care of building the stadium.

The team’s proposed financial package pegs the cost of a stadium – excluding site preparations – at $16 million. The team is asking for a $2 million grant from Lucas County and $2.5 million from the state’s capital budget. But the remaining 72 per cent of the cost of the stadium would come from private sources.

According to the proposal, $3 million would come from selling the stadium’s naming rights. And $2.5 million would be generated from leasing 25 luxury suites, mostly to area corporations. Lucas County would issue $4 million in bonds that would be repaid over 30 years by the team.

The final $2 million in private money would come from community promotions, selling items such as commemorative bricks, Muddy the Mud Hen Beanie Baby clones, and Mud Hens-brand bottled water.

The reliance on private money could clear what has been the biggest obstacle for stadium proponents: convincing taxpayers that they should ante up millions for a downtown stadium.

In May, Lucas County voters rejected, by a 3 to 2 margin, a temporary sales tax increase to pay for the stadium. That issue would have raised $35.4 million from taxpayers. Team officials took the vote as a message that voters don’t want to foot the bill by themselves.

The proposal would reduce the public burden from $35.4 million to $4.5 million, plus the costs of acquiring and preparing a site.

There’s a precedent for this shift in financing.

In 1997, voters in Columbus had the chance to approve a three-year, half-cent sales tax to build a hockey arena and a soccer stadium.

Columbus voters rejected the sales tax. Less than a month later, private money entered the picture. Two Columbus corporations announced plans to spend $125 million of their own money for the hockey arena. Officials with the soccer team, the Columbus Crew, agreed to pay for the construction of their stadium.

Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner has expressed support for the new emphasis on private dollars for the stadium.

“It appears to be an interesting combination of public and private sector resources, which calls upon the private sector for a significant commitment, which I certainly support,” he said.

But the mayor has said he does not want the ballpark built in East Toledo. He considers the stadium to be a key part of downtown’s revitalization, and he wants it to be built in the warehouse district – even if that district’s problems mean that the cost of the project goes up.

The warehouse district site includes land controlled by dozens of private owners, making the assembling of a site potentially very expensive.

Mud Hens officials want a park on the Acme plant site. The plant has its own lengthy history. When it opened in 1918, it was the main power source for all of northwest Ohio; in the 1950s, it generated 288 of the 320 megawatts Toledo Edison was capable of producing for the region.

But with nuclear power, the Acme plant became less important to Toledo Edison. After shutting down parts of the plant in the early 1990s, the utility put entire facility into mothballs in 1993.

When Toledo Edison needed to get the city’s approval for the merger that created FirstEnergy Corp., it offered to hand the Acme plant – and its valuable riverfront location – to the city, along with $2.3 million to clean up the site.

City officials haven’t decided whether they’ll take up Toledo Edison on its offer; they’re waiting for the results of environmental tests that will determine how much money it will take to clean up the site.

Mr. Bergsmark said that the Acme plant will have to come down sometime; so why not do it when you have something to put in its place?

“You can’t let it sit there for the next century,” he said.

But city and county officials have said that tearing down the Acme plant, moving the Toledo Edison substation on the site, and fixing any environmental problems would add more than $10 million to the project. Such costs would make a stadium there, in the words of city development director Barry Broome, “just not possible.”

Mr. Bergsmark said those cost estimates are “way out of whack” and far too high. Toledo Edison officials said they have never estimated how much it would cost to raze the Acme plant.

Ms. Isenberg said other questions remain about the East Toledo site. Among them: the traffic snarl that might be caused by thousands of baseball fans driving across the Maumee River at once.

“There’s also the question of infrastructure and roadway preparation,” she said. “If you go to a Storm game now, it’s murder getting across the Martin Luther King Bridge.”

The Toledo Storm hockey team plays at the Toledo Sports Arena, which is near the proposed East Toledo stadium site.

Mr. Bergsmark calls that concern an excuse.

“That’s a phobia people invent to avoid going to East Toledo,” he said. He pointed to the planned I-280 bridge and the possibility of improvements being made to the King bridge.

And the rules of baseball must be addressed, too. Mud Hens officials want the stadium to face the downtown skyline. But that would make the ballpark’s batters face west – straight into the setting sun for early evening games.

The rules of baseball say it is “desirable” for parks to face east-northeast. Representatives of other teams in the International League have raised concerns for the safety of their batters if they won’t be able to see the 90-mph fastballs approaching them.

The county commissioners will continue to look at other locations, Ms. Isenberg said. Mr. Bergsmark said that’s fine by him.

“It’s up to the county to give us a site free and clear,” he said. “Our job is just to build a stadium after we get a site with plenty of space for parking. The county decides where the site will be.”

But that decision could take a while. Ms. Isenberg said she has no timetable in mind for choosing a site, and she said she “won’t be rushed into making a commitment that is costly to the county.”

She said that other projects, such as a 911 communications center, a juvenile justice detention center, and a Sixth District Court of Appeals building, are much more pressing than a new stadium.

“Those are, in fact, priorities,” she said. “Those issues come way ahead of a Mud Hens stadium. The Mud Hens stadium is not a priority. It’s an `also.”‘

Fitness facility downtown gets ProMedica nod

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 11

ProMedica Health System officials have told Mayor Carty Finkbeiner that the company is interested in helping start a downtown health club.

“We would be interested in taking a role in a downtown fitness facility, in collaboration with the appropriate mix of civic and business leaders,” said ProMedica spokesman Tim Langhorst.

But he stressed that the company’s interest is not a commitment and that it is still unclear what role, if any, ProMedica might take in the project. Mr. Langhorst said the company believes that city government should take a leading role in creating a facility.

“The viability of any downtown fitness facility really depends on the commitment and support of many different parties, civic and corporate,” he said. “The city will have to bring those parties together.”

The mayor said he welcomed ProMedica’s interest but added that the company should be more active in taking charge of the project. Unless ProMedica takes a leadership role, the mayor said he will meet soon with representatives of ProMedica’s chief competitor, Mercy Health Systems, to find out whether they are interested.

ProMedica operates Toledo Hospital, Children’s Medical Center of Northwest Ohio, and Flower Hospital. Mercy operates St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center, Riverside Mercy Hospital, and St. Charles Mercy Hospital.

Mr. Finkbeiner repeated yesterday that a downtown health club is “one of my top priorities.”

City officials have said it will take a combination of investors to get a facility opened. “That’s because, financially, it doesn’t look to a lot of people like a `big winner,”‘ Mr. Finkbeiner said.

Currie-Hall Investment Co. of Hudson, O., had proposed a health club and apartments when it sub mitted plans for development of the former Commodore Perry Hotel, at Jefferson Avenue and Superior Street.

But the city decided to turn the Commodore over to Toledo devel opers Bill Hirt and his son, Oliver, who are building a 132-unit apartment complex with retail and commercial shops on the first three floors.

The mayor said potential investors are seeking a guaranteed user base, perhaps through deals struck with downtown employers. He said he could envision city government or other businesses paying a fee for employees to use the facilities.

Mr. Finkbeiner said the city is in discussions with other health and fitness companies that might be interested in becoming part of the project.

Toledo economic development director Barry Broome said the city will continue to identify interested parties and potential sites, as well as discuss what a downtown fitness facility might include.

He said he hopes to have a feasibility study under way in the first half of 1999.

Mr. Finkbeiner said he hopes to have a conclusive decision by the end of August on where the facility would be and when it would open.

As for what amenities a facility would include, Mr. Finkbeiner said that will be primarily the decision of the investors, who would determine what potential customers want.

“The market has to dictate facilities,” he said. “I think there’s less of a chance for a swimming pool, because you’re really adding to the cost with that.

“A running track also adds a dimension of cost they’re not sure would be justified,” the mayor said.

Mr. Finkbeiner said he wants a downtown health club centrally located and open at least from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.

Toledo has been without a full-service downtown health club for nearly 20 years, when the Young Men’s Christian Association closed its downtown branch on Jefferson Avenue.

In 1996, the YMCA received help from the Toledo Lucas County Port Authority, which issued about $2.5 million in tax-exempt bonds to allow the YMCA to fund renovations and improvements at five area YMCA branches and refinance some debt.

A YMCA capital campaign, which included developing a YMCA health club in part of the Toledo Edison steam plant on Water Street that went out of service in June, 1985, foundered several years ago because of a lack of support from businesses downtown.

Sun may be a strike against Hens ballpark site

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 1

Here’s a switch: Not having the sun in their eyes may have caused the Mud Hens to drop the ball.

An ancient rule of baseball, along with the laws of nature, are presenting a conflict for the proposed East Toledo riverfront ballpark. The planned positioning of the ballpark could leave fans and players staring straight into the sun.

The problem is simple. Team officials want fans to be able to admire the downtown skyline from their seats.

In fact, the site recommendation document presented to Lucas County commissioners this week pushes the skyline views: “A waterfront ballpark and sports complex will afford wonderful views of downtown Toledo skyline and the Maumee River.”

But where there’s skyline, there’s sun.

Rule 1.04 of the official rules of baseball, after outlining mundane topics like the slope of the pitcher’s mound and the distance from first to second base, has this to say:

“It is desirable that the line from home base through the pitcher’s plate to second base shall run east northeast.”

It’s not a requirement, but it’s a strong recommendation with the backing of common sense. If that line were to face, say, west southwest, batters would be looking straight into the setting sun for late afternoon and early evening games. That would mean that batters could have trouble seeing the ball being pitched to them.

Therein lies the rub. For Mud Hens fans to have a good view of the skyline and the river, that line would have to face west southwest.

That could cause squinting for players and fans.

“You’ve got to build it facing the right direction, that’s sure,” said Gene Cook, the team’s general manager. “That would be very difficult on a batter’s eyes. They could not put it facing the sun.”

He did cite one potential bonus of batters staring sunward: “If they did that, we’d have a lot of well-pitched games.”

Even without the problem of how to orient a potential East Toledo stadium, financing problems with the proposed site – on the former Toledo Edison Acme generating plant – may kill the plan. County and city officials say it will cost too much to demolish the plant to make way for the stadium.

Representatives of other teams in the Mud Hens’ International League expressed their concerns, including the safety of their players.

“It’s definitely not a normal thing to do,” said Mike Birling, assistant general manager of the Durham Bulls. “Anytime you have players look directly into the sun with balls moving that fast, there are obvious safety concerns.”

He said that the major league affiliates of some teams may have concerns about putting high-priced young players into a potentially unsafe situation.

At least one former major leaguer said facing the setting sun is a significant problem.

“I’ve never seen a field that was laid out like that in 36 years of baseball,” said Tommy John, a legendary Yankees pitcher who is remembered for his 288 wins and 46 shutouts and for lending his name to “Tommy John surgery,” a tendon-replacement operation that saved his career and since has saved dozens of others.

“Personally I don’t think it would help their team. There’s got to be maybe another solution to the problem,” said Mr. John, now a radio announcer and director of community relations for the Charlotte Knights of the International League.

Still, he said “you could probably put up with it. I know nowadays, it’s more important to have an aesthetically beautiful stadium than it is to have something in lines with the traditions of baseball.”

Ed Bergsmark, the chairman of the Mud Hens’ board of directors, said that the sun issue had been taken into consideration. But he said he did not know how it would be resolved.

“There’s been some studies,” he said. “There’s a way of positioning the ball diamond so it meets the rules and is acceptable to the players.”

He said the sun shouldn’t be a problem. But a stadium facing west, combined with the long summer nights, could mean sun in the eyes of batters for six or seven innings for early evening games, of which 47 are scheduled for the 1999 season.

International League officials said that the sun’s glare would be a factor when they decide if a stadium is appropriate for IL play.

“It would have to be something that is taken into consideration,” said Randy Mobley, the International League’s president. “If this were to arise as an issue, there is a possibility that potentially plans could not be approved.”

Mr. Mobley said that the league will examine stadium plans when “they become serious and viable.”

Similar problems exist at a handful of other minor league stadiums, such as the Louisville RiverBats’ park in Kentucky. But that stadium is primarily used for University of Louisville football, with baseball as a secondary use.

Mr. Cook said the site for a stadium would have to allow the sun problem to be avoided.

“The site has to be appropriate,” he said. “It has to be one you can set up in the correct manner, where they would have to meet the requirements of facing the right way.”

Mr. John did have one suggestion for how the Mud Hens might be able to keep their stadium’s proposed positioning.

“Maybe Toledo city council and the mayor could vote to put that area on Pacific Coast Time, so you could play the games before the sunset,” Mr. John said. “Or maybe Icelandic time. That might be easier to do than batting into the sun.”