Toledo turnaround still a way away; Population numbers prompt optimistic forecast from city officials

By Joshua Benton and Michael D. Sallah
Blade Staff Writers

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Toledo’s population finally may be back on the rise, but it may be decades before the area can recover from the damage done during the last 30 years.

“Toledo has sustained significant losses,” said Glenn King, a senior analyst with the Census Bureau. “It can take a long time to reverse that trend. For most cities, it can take years.”

Other “Rust Belt” cities have had a head start. They’ve used the economic boom of the 1990s to grow back some of what they lost in the rough years. But Toledo just kept losing people, census figures show.

Monday’s Census Bureau report, which projected a slight increase in the Toledo metro area’s population, created excitement among area leaders. Mayor Carty Finkbeiner called a news conference at which he proclaimed his office had “taken care of business.”

But the true depth of Toledo’s problems might require huge efforts from city officials, business leaders, and citizens. Consider:

* The slight boost predicted for the second half of the 1990s – perhaps one or two thousand people, although census officials are not making any estimates – would still leave Toledo deep in the hole for the decade.

Between 1990 and 1996, the most recent statistics available, Toledo lost 15,337 people. That’s 4.6 per cent of its population. And that’s on top of losses of 21,692 in the 1980s and 28,427 in the 1970s. Toledo has lost more than one-sixth of its population in the last 30 years.

* Toledo’s projected growth is well behind other similar cities. Twenty-three “Rust Belt” cities lost population in the 1980s. Of those, the situation of 22 improved in the early 1990s; either their losses decreased dramatically or they saw their populations rise again.

Metro Toledo was the one exception. It lost population in the early 1990s just as quickly as it did in the 1980s, 0.4 per cent over both periods.

While Toledo was shrinking, other Rust Belt cities were growing. The Cleveland-Akron metro area grew 1.7 per cent. The Canton area grew 2.2 per cent. The Detroit-Ann Arbor-Flint area grew 4.9 per cent.

That’s the kind of recovery that could be expected during the unprecedented economic boom of the last eight years. And in Toledo, the city’s most important industry – automotive – has been on a long upswing.

If Toledo lost people during a period of this much economic success, some ask, what will happen when the economy enters a downturn?

“We certainly could have done better” during the economic boom, said Dr. Samuel Aryeetey-Attoh, chairman of the University of Toledo’s geography and planning department, who has studied the economies of metropolitan areas. “Certainly, there’s a need to diversify and prepare for the future.”

He said that Toledo must focus on finding new industries, in areas like plastics and high technology, or risk economic trouble if the automotive industry faces a downturn.

“We saw the impact in the early 1980s, when you had Japanese competition,” he said. Other cities, like Portland, Raleigh, and Cleveland, have done a better of job of updating their economies than has Toledo.

Just about every economic indicator shows the region is poised for growth. Unemployment rates are down. Jobs are being created, from large projects like the Jeep plant to smaller businesses. Housing starts are rising in Toledo and its suburbs.

Area leaders at the mayor’s news conference blamed the negative numbers on a slow-starting economic recovery. Other cities, they said, had a headstart.

“Places like Cleveland have been rebuilding since 1980,” said Don Jakeway, president of the Regional Growth Partnership. “Toledo is just starting to reach its peak now.”

“We got a late start at this urban renaissance,” the mayor said, adding that the real start was 1994, when he took office. “We’re still relatively young within the rebound. Others may have reached their peak and leveled off.”

Mr. Finkbeiner said that “prophets of doom” who predicted a continued decline were out of line, and that a growing population is the key to success.

“Our single biggest need in northwest Ohio is to increase our population base,” he said. “It isn’t to stay stable. It’s to grow.”

Toledo isn’t the only part of Ohio that has sustained the loss of people. Statewide, Ohio trails the rest of the country in growth, which has had a significant impact on the state’s standing in the nation’s capital.

When congressional seats are reapportioned after the 2000 census, Ohio is projected to lose a seat, dropping its total to 18. In 1960, Ohio had 24 seats, behind only New York, California, and Pennsylvania. States in the West and South have achieved such enormous gains in population that they have taken congressional seats away from Ohio.

Money is also at stake in Ohio’s population numbers. Federal dollars are often tied to state and city population totals.

When the 2000 census is completed, for the first time since the Great Depression, Toledo won’t be one of America’s 50 largest cities. According to 1996 estimates, it is No. 53.

For the Toledo area to achieve sustained growth, officials said it must create a more highly trained, high-tech oriented work force,and get past Toledo’s image as a union town that’s bad for business.

Toledo has a highly skilled work force in its industrial sector, but it does not have a well educated one. Toledo has the smallest percentage of college graduates of any Ohio metropolitan area over 500,000.

In cities like Ann Arbor and Columbus, large universities provide the brainpower that leads to entrepreneurs and successful, growing businesses. Ann Arbor’s recent successes have had a large part in the Detroit area’s growth in the 1990s.

New UT president Vik Kapoor acknowledged that UT must do more to charge the area economy and said he wants to help establish a technology park to attract high-tech businesses.

“We want to be the center of technology for northwest Ohio,” Dr. Kapoor said. “That will create jobs. That is what happened to Ann Arbor.”

Dr. Kapoor said he will work with city leaders to encourage businesses to come to the UT area, just as automotive suppliers cluster around a new automotive plant. He said he would like to see professors doing research and earning patents in fields such as biotechnology, machining technology, and computer engineering. Students could then start up companies based on those technologies.

He said it would be critical to increase the quality of UT’s faculty if the university hopes to have the research capabilities necessary to spinoff businesses.

“We will be hiring excellent professors from outside the university who are at the state of the art, and we will be investing in our professors to get them to that level,” Dr. Kapoor said.

He said that will be a multi-million-dollar investment and that the university’s budget will be altered to allow for it.

Misconceptions about Toledo may stymie growth and companies choosing to move here.

The area is sometimes labeled as a strong union area that’s frequently hostile to management decisions – a rap that many in this area consider unfair and a trend from the past.

But the label has persisted, even if it’s not used as much as it was a decade ago.

“I think there are some false perceptions, and we are aware that people have felt that way,” Mr. Jakeway said. “The problem is: sometimes perception is worse than reality.”

He said recent alliances between labor and management, especially at Jeep, have set an entirely different trend.

“We have an enlightened labor climate that is so far different than 15 years ago,” he said. “It’s [discouraging] to even hear these things.”

At yesterday’s news conference, Mr. Finkbeiner said he is trying to build the region’s population base by establishing a solid core downtown. He said that the trend of renovating older downtown buildings into apartments is a good start.

“In 1993, there were maybe 50 people living downtown,” he said. “We are starting to bring people back.”

In addition, 1,600 houses have been built or rehabilitated in the past five years, he said. All this will help keep more people in the city, he added.

In the early part of this century, Toledo could count on heavy immigration, mostly from eastern Europe, to pump up its population.

But the changing patterns of immigration have passed over Toledo. Immigrants in the 1990s are heavily Asian or Hispanic, and they tend to settle in states like California, Texas, and Florida.

Mr. Jakeway said he will remain cautious about the population numbers until the official census is complete in 2000.

“These are estimates, and while I’m pleased, I think it’s better to stand up and cheer when the count comes in,” he said.