Auto-Lite demonstration is expected; Council may restrict use of money from Edison

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page 13

Toledo officials have put together a financial package they believe will allow them to tear down one of Toledo’s worst industrial eyesores in 1999.

Tomorrow, the council will consider an ordinance that would allow the city to accept bids to tear down the Auto-Lite plant on Champlain Street.

Demolition of the 87-year-old plant could cost more than $750,000, but city officials say they have gathered $800,000 from a variety of sources.

“We’ve made enough progress that we believe we’ll get it done in the next year,” said Anthony Reams, the city’s director of neighborhoods.

The structure has been vacant since the late 1980s. It was the site of one of the pivotal moments in Toledo labor history: the bloody 1934 battle between striking workers and armed guards that left two people dead and 200 injured.

But for the last decade, it has been most noted as the target of sustained calls for demolition. City officials and North Toledo residents say the hulking structure is a major safety risk to the area. It has been the site of numerous fires.

So far, the demolition project has received a $150,000 federal challenge grant through the office of U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D., Toledo). The ordinance before council will add $150,000 from the city’s capital budget.

In addition, Mr. Reams said the city is prepared to borrow up to $500,000 from a $26.8 million line of credit provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

The HUD credit was primarily created to cover cost overruns in the Jeep project. But city officials now say they will not have to borrow all the money for Jeep.

Mr. Reams said that the city is searching for other funding sources, such as grants or lower-interest loans, to reduce the amount of money the city has to borrow from the U.S. government.

The ordinance will allow the city to begin environmental testing to better determine the total cost of demolition. Mr. Reams said he has no timetable in mind for when bids for the entire project will be taken.

“We’ve gathered together quite a bit of money, and we’ll keep looking for more,” he said. “But it looks like we’ll be moving forward on demolition sometime in 1999.”

The council will consider an ordinance to require the so-called Edison Compact funds to be spent and allocated just like any other money.

Some city council members say Mayor Carty Finkbeiner uses Toledo Edison’s annual $1.2-million payment to the city as a personal “slush” fund.

The money comes to the city because of a 1997 city agreement with the utility. The city agreed not to object to Toledo Edison’s merger with Ohio Edison Co. of Akron to form FirstEnergy Corp., in exchange for $6 million in economic development funds over five years.

The mayor has spent that Edison money on a variety of projects, but without city council’s approval. About $4.8 million of the $6 million is dedicated to the Jeep project.

The city charter requires city council to approve any spending over $10,000. But administration officials say that since the Edison money never officially enters the city’s coffers, council does not have to approve how it is spent.

Several council members, most vocally Peter Gerken, object to the mayor’s use of the compact funds. He pointed to a $112,000 grant to help an antiques mall in the Erie Street Market.

“Maybe that’s a great program and a great use of the money, but maybe not,” Mr. Gerken said. “The point is, we on council don’t have any say.”

The ordinance will require Edison money to be deposited into a city fund, meaning council would have to approve how it is spent. The ordinance is co-sponsored by six of the 12 members of council, making passage likely.

Toledo Edison’s parent company, FirstEnergy, is the target of a Justice Department probe investigating whether the payments constitute an illegal restraint of trade.

Other items on the council’s agenda include:

* Mr. Finkbeiner’s proposed 60-day moratorium on the issuance of demolition permits in certain parts of the city. The mayor is asking for the moratorium to prevent the demolition of several buildings in South Toledo. They are scheduled to be replaced by a Rite Aid drugstore the mayor says will hurt the historic character of the Broadway and South Avenue intersection.

The mayor could have a tough fight to persuade the council, which has voted twice to support the new Rite Aid. Council approved the demolition of the buildings 10-2 last month, and when Mr. Finkbeiner used his veto to reverse the vote, council overrode him, 9-3.

* Leasing the former Page Dairy site at 311 Wade St. to the Toledo International Hostel/Guesthouse Corp.

The site will be used to construct a hostel for travelers. The lease payments will be $1 per year for 20 years.

The Page Dairy building was razed in 1994 after being the site of numerous incidents of vandalism.