(This article was written on January 30th and published in the February 1st edition of the Toledo Free Press.)
Elizabeth Holland and Abell companies decide to renovate Westgate Village Shopping Center. They meet with potential tenants and neighbors, review zoning restrictions, do their market research, sign tenants and make a public announcement of a $35 million investment. They ask for infrastructure support – water/sewer/roads – that would be necessary regardless of what goes into Westgate. They spend 18 months doing their planning and preparation and then, at the last minute, they learn that three elected officials don’t “like” what they’ve got planned.
These three hold a press conference, without advance notice to Ms. Holland, and state publicly that they’re going to hire their own architect and lawyer (because they believe the law is on their side…merely an intimidation tool) to come up with their own plan for how they want this redeveloped property to look. They then meet, behind closed doors, to figure out how to pay for their plan and they decide that the Lucas County Improvement Corporation should foot the bill – and if they don’t then the County and City will just split the cost.
Without actually asking for LCIC support first, they give the go-ahead to the architect and lawyer who do the work and then release their plan. Their timing was based upon a sense of urgency to get their plan out in the public before the developer could present her plan – because, obviously, their plan is better.
Of course, like any plan developed by politicians, major issues were not considered and the result, so far, is a fiasco, with Abell calling the plan “unworkable” and some components a “deal-breaker” if insisted upon.
The final straw, however, came when Mayor Finkbeiner publicly stated that wealthy developers try to use money to influence our Plan Commission. Has our mayor ever heard the term “libel?”
Had I been consulted on this issue, I would have objected strenuously to any public announcement with first having met with Ms. Holland to understand her position on the design of Westgate. I would have said to Ms. Holland, “We’ve got some Westgate neighbors who are concerned about the walkability of the site. How do we help you address these concerns?” I would have worked with her to understand the depth of planning and market research and then would have worked with the neighbors to help them understand why the plan is as it is and why any modifications could or could not be made.
Consider the message that the business community has received with the Finkbeiner/Wozniak plan, as it’s become known: we don’t care how much homework you do to develop a profitable venture, if it doesn’t suit our personal tastes, we’ll use the power of our office to force you do things our way. We’ll then accuse you of trying to influence the process – completely ignoring the fact that that is exactly what we’re trying to do.
What message would the business community received if, instead, we tried to help Ms. Holland dispel the neighborhood concerns and then stood by her, defending her exhaustive market research and the desires of the tenants to have a facility that helps them – and subsequently, the city and county – make money?
That Mayor Finkbeiner, Commissioner Wozniak and Commissioner Gerken have never been business owners is clearly evident in the many factors they failed to consider before going down this ill-fated road. I realize that they don’t like to include the “Republican” in their plans – this is an election year for me, afterall. But they, and the entire community, would have been better served had they bothered to at least ask, “Maggie, you’ve run a company before, if you were Elizabeth Holland, what would you think about this?”
Right now, though, we have two choices: continue to insist that the personal preferences of elected officials take precedence over the legal plans of private developer and continue to expend public dollars to do so, or apologize for how rudely we’ve handled the situation and humbly ask what we can do to help Ms. Holland make Westgate profitable once again. I choose the latter.