All signs point to renewed vitality and growth in area

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

Page A13 (Focus edition)

The rest of the country finally figured it out.

We here in Toledo always knew we lived in an All-America City. Aside from that occasional blizzard, this is a great place to live, plain and simple.

So when a jury in Mobile, Ala., decided last June to put the All-America stamp on our fine town, it just made it official.

Observers of the United States have always said our country is about rebirth: the second chances it gives, the ways it lets people start anew, with a new image and a new energy.

So it makes perfect sense that Toledo – that shape-changer that has been struggling to be reborn for what seems like decades – is All-America.

We’ve become quite good at reusing the reminders of past glory, the leftovers that 10 or 20 years ago would have just been torn down.

There’s COSI, the ultra-popular children’s science museum on the waterfront downtown. It’s in a building, Portside, that once symbolized the very failures of Toledo’s past that COSI is pushing beyond.

And when Chrysler needed to find a new place to build a Jeep plant, they picked an old place: the Stickney Avenue plant. DaimlerChrysler’s $1.2 billion investment in the plant means that Toledo sports one of the 10 largest construction projects in the country this year.

In 1999, the recycling will continue. Two old downtown hotels, the once-wrecking-ball-bound Hillcrest and the Commodore Perry, will both open their doors to apartment tenants; the Perry has already had a few trickle in after renovation.

The Valentine Theatre, once the centerpiece of downtown life, will finish a multi-million-dollar renovation and raise its curtain once again in October.

The old Civic Auditorium, which now houses the Erie Street Market, will add an antique mall and perhaps a sports bar.

And an old city building in International Park will become the center of Toledo’s dining life, as four restaurants and a banquet hall join the Navy Bistro in a development that will add even more energy to the booming East Toledo entertainment district.

All the progress hasn’t gone unnoticed. After decades of bleeding, people have stopped leaving Toledo. Area governments project that the 2000 census will show that the city actually gained people in the second half of the 1990s – the first population gain in the city limits since the 1960s. This year, Toledo will add more new homes than it has in more than 20 years. The suburbs are still growing in leaps, too, meaning the metro area is very healthy.

Toledo has always been a great place for families: nice neighborhoods, low crime, and Midwestern values. But young people have always had one big complaint: it’s boring. There’s just not much to do after 6 p.m.

That may be changing. Toledo is not Chicago or New York, and one of its traditional selling points (“It’s only an hour from Ann Arbor and Detroit!”) remains as critical as ever, but there are a few new nightspots going up that are encouraging. We’ve got an arts cinema now in southwest Toledo, so there’s less need to go to Michigan for that. Downtown is getting art galleries, new restaurants, and more people.

The city’s administration is try ing its best to turn downtown into the place to be for young professionals, and judging from the people who haunt places like Sufficient Grounds or the LaSalle Apartments, it’s working.

More downtown developments aimed at twenty- and thirtysomethings are coming in 1999, Mayor Carty Finkbeiner says. If the mayor gets his way, that’ll include starting construction on a downtown baseball stadium, a new home for the Toledo Mud Hens.

The economy is as strong as it’s been in decades. Unemployment is barely an issue. A merger in the nursing-home industry brought Toledo a new Fortune 500 company, HCR ManorCare, which is our first corporate giant not based primarily on heavy industry. Just as important, HCR will move its headquarters into the Summit Center downtown, filling another hole in the skyline.

Admittedly, a lot of the economic success of the region is based on the economic success of the na tion. But Toledo governments have actually done quite a good job of marketing the region to companies around the world. From frozen-food makers to African flower vendors, they’re all coming to Toledo.

Companies are starting to realize that our location – a port on the Great Lakes, a railroad center, an air cargo hub, and the intersection of three of the country’s longest interstates – makes Toledo a perfect spot for new development.

Some of that development has been controversial. Drug store chains such as Rite Aid are tearing down some old buildings to build boxy, cookie-cutter stores, which only contributes to one of Toledo’s biggest problems: the bland stretches of fast-food restaurants and retail that make the city indistinguishable from a thousand other cities. Citizens fought to stop a new Home Depot store on Secor Road, but couldn’t win at the ballot box.

And, with the acres and acres of asphalt parking we’ve got to look at on every corner, it’s not exactly city beautiful. But the city is promising to find ways to change zoning rules to stop some of this development.

But if Toledo’s most controversial problems revolve around improper drug store placement and where to put new multi-million-dollar stores, we’re doing just fine.

It’s a cliche: what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Well, Toledo wasn’t ever quite at death’s door, but the crisis mentality of the 1980s is over. Toledoans can look forward to new projects that will make the city a measurably better place to live in 1999. Almost all the signals are going in the right direction.