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Toledo's 'Economic Heart' Is Beating Once Again

By Barry Hersh , Michael Taylor

Toledo has always been an auto town, making car parts ranging from Champion Sparkplugs to Libby-Owens-Ford windshields.

Toledo's most iconic auto manufacturing product was the US military Jeep, started by Willys-Overland Co. Ownership passed to Kaiser, then AMC, then Chrysler and now Fiat, as the brand was commercialized.

Over the past 40 years the city of Toledo, state of Ohio and the United Auto Workers union have mounted several efforts and each time gathered incentives to keep Jeep manufactured in Toledo.

In late 2015 Jeep announced that the Wrangler and a new Wrangler based pick-up truck will be built in the North Toledo plant on Stickney Ave., with no future need for the long closed South Plant. In the late 1950s this plant employed approximately 25,000 workers, many of whom lived nearby.

It was often said that when Detroit caught cold, Toledo sneezed. While Toledo has not gone bankrupt, the changes in the auto industry and the latest recession have certainly taken a toll on this classic rust-belt city, as population and economic vitality suffered.

The Toledo Lucas County Port Authority, that operates the very active, mostly grain shipping, port facilities on the Maumee River, has become a significant economic development participant, and has taken ownership of the 110-acre South Jeep Plant property, naming it Overland Industrial Park.

Working with the city and state, the Port Authority, led by its President and CEO Paul Toth, completed the cleanup, extended infrastructure—including improving access roads for the soon to be updated I-75—and in total invested $9-million in this redevelopment effort. The site was contaminated, primarily with TCE, and the remediation included both removal and in situ solutions.

Both the United States and Ohio Environmental Protection Agencies have contributed technical assistance and regulated the remediation. Sally Gladwell, Vice President of the Mannik-Smith Group and Certified Environmental Professional (CP) for the site, sees the port's actions this way.

"The Port Authority's commitment to acquire, clean up, and redevelop key Brownfield sites like the former Jeep plant property is vitally important to the revitalization of our city and region. Not only is the Port Authority investing in land that bears Toledo's signature of Jeep manufacturing, they are doing so in a way that invests in the long-term environmental and economic sustainability of our community. What's more: they have taken on their mission, inviting support from a host of other public and private partners. The benefits of that collaborative approach are immeasurable," she said.

Blended Reuse
In 2015 an agreement was reached with local co-developer Industrial Developers Ltd, for a public-private partnership. A 100,000 sq. ft. modern, 34-feet clear height, tilt-up construction, speculative warehouse building is almost completed.

With the recent announcement keeping Chrysler Fiat Jeep Wrangler in their nearby North Toledo plant, future suppliers are a target market being actively pursued. Long term, the site will focus on providing modern facilities to bring good jobs in the city's core, and envisions a state-of-the art mix of industrial and/commercial uses, solar, and green infrastructure along the Ottawa River.

The Port Authority based the plan for Overland Industrial Park upon economic and planning consultant studies, including an early pro bono effort with several local firms. While the focus is firmly on job creation, the Port Authority has worked with the city, US EPA, the Toledo Foundation and Vita Nuova LLC toward a broader vision to benefit the surrounding community.

The nearby neighborhood on the west side of the Ottawa River has suffered disinvestment and is now 70% non-owner occupied, 43% of the property is vacant and a 25% loss of population over the decade, and numerous other brownfields surround the neighborhood.

When Christopher Choi, a member of the Land Revitalization team, at US EPA heard about the Port's commitment, he began seeking targeted technical assistance intended to expand the revitalization to the neighborhood. In 2011, key stakeholders were invited to a one-day "local Synergy" Summit to identify opportunities for revitalization.

These included job recruitment, shared transportation improvements, and other commercial ventures around the plant site. In 2012, community members worked together to form a grassroots group called OWENI to work on projects from the ground up. Their work has included outreach to youth, pocket parks, house painting projects and keeping the neighborhood informed and engaged.

The city of Toledo was awarded a US EPA Area-Wide Planning grant of $200,000 and a process for revitalization was carried out by the Vita Nuova-Mannik-Smith team in 2014. With these resources, the work begun by EPA's consultant Vita Nuova could be broadened and deepened through an 18-month process engaging 30-40 different stakeholder groups, city, state and federal agencies.

The result was a roadmap for revitalizing and re-populating the neighborhood. Unlike traditional planning processes, the goals were to identify actions that would continue beyond the grant and empower local leaders to take them on.

From the process, five key initiative groups were formed and action plans developed. They included: Land Reuse, Neighborhood Improvements, Job Preparation and Training, Safety and Youth Engagement.

The Key Initiative groups overcame traditional bureaucratic boundaries and worked as teams to create real change on the ground. This project continues to be coordinated by Marc Gerdeman, project manager for the city of the Toledo Area-wide Planning Project.

Working with key partners like the Cherry Street Legacy Project managed by Karen Rogalski, the Toledo Foundation, OWENI, the Toledo Design Center and many partners too numerous to mention, this neighborhood is on its way back and will return to a healthy, vibrant home to the revitalized former Jeep Plant. LISC (Local Initiative Support Corporation) is also an active housing finance and sustainable community advocate through its Toledo office.

There is still much to be done, starting with tenants in the new industrial building and then adding to Overland Industrial Park to provide more jobs and amenities.

Since World War II, this site has been at the economic heart of Toledo. The aspirational goal of this brownfield redevelopment is for this centrally-located site to play a strong, positive role in the future of the city and the community—restoring vibrancy one site and one action at a time.

Barry Hersh, AICP, is an Associate Professor at NYU SPS Schack Institute of Real Estate, a member of Vita Nuova LLC and former Principal Planner for the Toledo-Lucas County Plan Commission.

Michael Taylor, President of Vita Nuova LLC, a national consultancy focused on redevelopment of complex properties and revitalizing distressed communities, served as project manager for the Toledo revitalization efforts.

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