Finkbeiner to port: Don’t aid Rossford

By Joshua Benton
Blade Staff Writer

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Toledo Mayor Carty Finkbeiner wants to make sure that the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority doesn’t get involved in efforts to revive the Rossford arena-amphitheater project.

“I’m certainly going to stand in the way of the Toledo-Lucas County Port Authority even entertaining any thought of it,” he said. “It’s not their job to bail out projects outside the county of Lucas that may not have been as well thought out as they should have been in the first place.”

The mayor’s comments were made soon after the port board’s newest member, Thomas Schlachter, advocated some form of assistance for the Rossford project, with other port officials saying they would be willing to consider the idea.

G. Ray Medlin, Jr., the port board chairman, said he has not been approached about assisting Rossford but added that he has “always been an advocate for regional cooperation.”

For almost a decade, officials in Rossford have been planning the development of the Crossroads of America, the area south of I-75 and the Ohio Turnpike.

Last year, Mayor Mark Zuchowski announced the centerpiece of the development: a hockey arena and an amphitheater. Officials set up the Rossford Arena Amphitheater Authority to build the structures, and construction began last summer. Retail, hotel, and other developments would surround the complex.

But the arena authority has had trouble finding the funding necessary to construct the $48 million project. Construction was stopped in November when temporary financing ran out, and officials have been struggling to find a way to jump-start the project since.

Mr. Schlachter, a local developer, said this week the port authority should look into ways to assist the Rossford project. On Thursday, the Lucas County commissioners named Mr. Schlachter the newest member of the port board.

“I’m impressed with the potential of the Crossroads concept, and I hate to see anything in the area fail because it’s a black eye for the entire region,” Mr. Schlachter said.

The port authority can provide low-interest loans to development projects in the region through the Northwest Ohio Bond Fund. The authority has arranged financing deals for such major projects as the downtown headquarters of Owens-Corning and Manor Care.

Mr. Schlachter said he doesn’t yet have any specific plans for the port’s involvement in the Rossford arena project, and he hasn’t spoken with any other port board members about the subject. But some local officials seemed cautiously interested in the idea.

Mr. Medlin said that he had not been aware of Mr. Schlachter’s comments, but said they were worth considering.

“With Tom’s background in development, I should pay attention when he says something like that,” he said. “If he’s got some ideas, I think we should hear them out. It might behoove Lucas County, Wood County, the Regional Growth Partnership, and the port authority to listen.”

He said that no one has approached him about a port authority role in the Rossford project.

He quickly added that if the issue was raised, he would remove himself from all discussion and all votes because of his conflict of interest. Mr. Medlin is business development manager for The Lathrop Co., the Maumee-based contractor that is managing construction of the arena and amphitheater.

Mr. Finkbeiner opposes any assistance to the Rossford project, in part because it could provide competition for the Toledo Sports Arena and its major tenant, the Toledo Storm hockey team.

But Mr. Medlin said that, if it succeeds, the Rossford deal would be beneficial to all of northwest Ohio. “There are some people who would see the success of a project like that as a threat to their own economic well-being, and that’s very selfish,” Mr. Medlin said.

Mark Zyndorf, a member of the port board’s finance committee, said that port assistance to the Rossford project should be considered like any other. He said the port authority gets much of its funding through the fees it charges for bond issues and other financing services for projects outside Lucas County.

But Mr. Zyndorf said he doubts that the Rossford project would qualify for port authority assistance because of its lack of financial backing. “My guess is that it would lack the credit enhancement or guarantees we’d need to qualify,” he said.

James Hartung, the port authority’s president, would “neither confirm nor deny” that the authority is in talks with Rossford officials. He said it is a long-standing port authority policy to keep potential financing deals confidential. He did say that the Rossford site is “a wonderful location.”

“We believe that Toledo and Lucas County can best be served through the development and growth of the entire region,” he said. “We know that our focus is Lucas County, but our broader mission sends us beyond the political boundaries.”

Mr. Finkbeiner’s response: “Balderdash. The taxpayers of Lucas County and the city of Toledo expect the port board’s focus to be upon the county of Lucas and the city of Toledo. The port authority should not be bailing out projects in other jurisdictions.”

He said that because Rossford officials did not initially ask for assistance from the port authority, they should not expect any now that the project has hit hard times.

Mayor Zuchowski said recently that he hopes to “regionalize” the funding of the arena-amphitheater.

Lucas County commissioners Sandy Isenberg and Harry Barlos said that Mr. Schlachter never shared his views on the Rossford project while he was under consideration for appointment.

Ms. Isenberg said the idea should be looked at, “but I’m not advocating it.”

If the port authority is involved, financing could be arranged so that Lucas County would share with Wood County in tax revenues from the project, she added. “And Wood County itself has to look at this project. It’s in their back yard.”

Mr. Barlos echoed the statements of many local leaders, like Mr. Medlin, who have called for greater regional cooperation in economic development. But he said that the mechanisms of cooperation should be worked out before Rossford is assisted.

“I would look first at regionalizing the [port] authority,” Mr. Barlos said, “without closing the door on the idea of assistance” to Rossford.

Mr. Barlos said that the time may be coming to hold a “summit” between the various counties involved in the port authority to explore the issue of regionalization. “No one wants to see a project fail in any one of our neighbors,” he said. “Our prosperity depends on our neighbors.”

Aside from his involvement with Lathrop, Mr. Medlin has another tie to the Rossford project. He sat on the board of the Rossford Economic Growth Corporation, which did some of the planning for the arena project. His position on the board was based on his affiliation with the Northwest Ohio District Council of Carpenters, which has loaned $2.4 million to the Rossford project.

Mr. Medlin is the former executive director of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters health and safety fund.

Port board member Jim White, Jr., said he has heard of the idea and could not comment on it until “I know what kind of support they are talking about.”

Board member G. Opie Rollison said he could not comment because his law firm, Cooper, Walinski, and Cramer, represents the Rossford Transportation Improvement District, which is building the roads for the Crossroads project.

Other board members, along with Rossford officials, could not be reached for comment.

Don Jakeway, the president of the Regional Growth Partnership, which does economic development work in conjunction with the port authority, said no one had asked his organization to help Rossford. “The financial structuring seems to be where they’re having the most trouble, and I’m not sure we could really offer anything in that area,” he said.

Blade staff writer Brian Nearing contributed to this report.