A Rare Win For A City

AT THE PSYCHIC CENTER ON THE east side of Toledo, Ohio, customers seek guidance on life's universal issues: health, love and money. But lately when Madam Rose has worked the tarot cards, clients have had a bigger concern: where will they build the new Jeep plant? ""I've been asked that 20, 30 times,'' she says. For nearly a year the whole city awaited an answer. Last week it arrived: Jeep, the Chrysler Corp. division that's the city's largest employer and a local icon as beloved as the minor-league Mudhens, will replace its decrepit factory with a new, $1.2 billion plant in (drumroll, please) ... Toledo. The announcement came after lobbying efforts that inspired parades, billboards and even a song (""It's more than four-wheelers/we're fighting to keep/It's the people who make them/why Toledo loves Jeep''). Losing the plant would have been ""like the Colts leaving Baltimore, the Browns leaving Cleveland,'' says Toledo Mayor Carleton Finkbeiner. With Chrysler's announcement, he says, ""our prayers have been answered.''

Despite the drama, this was no ""Roger and Me''-style story of a company threatening to shutter factories and discard workers. Chrysler had always promised to rebuild the nation's oldest auto plant somewhere - and keep most of its 5,600 workers. The big question: would Chrysler build the replacement for Toledo Assembly on virgin farmland as far as 50 miles from Toledo's working-class neighborhoods, or on vacant industrial land inside the city limits? It's the kind of investment decision being played out across the nation. From old rail yards in the South Bronx to abandoned steel mills in Pittsburgh and Cleveland to the empty manufacturing lots of St. Louis, cities are fighting to make their barren, blighted acres sprout businesses. When they succeed it bolsters tax rolls, improves cities' esthetic appeal and slows suburban sprawl. But it's no easy sell. ""From manufacturers' point of view, it's easier to go with a suburban location,'' says urban planner Gary Sands of Wayne State University. ""So cities have to do more to make themselves attractive.''

When it comes to attracting auto plants, cities have a lousy batting average: in the last decade just one in 10 has been built on so-called brownfield urban sites. That's largely because German and Japanese carmakers have done most of the building lately, and they favor small Southern towns where they can train a work force from scratch and avoid tangling with unions. But even for companies that aren't intent on country living, the charms of greenfield suburban land can be overwhelming. There's a better supply of skilled workers, no need to clean up pollution left behind by old industries, lower taxes and crime, good access to interstate highways - and it's easier to buy big plots of land. Those lures have caused big headaches for the nation's cities. A recent survey of 36 cities found 43,000 brownfield acres that cost $387 million in lost taxes. ""We've had this mentality that because we have so much land, it's easy to throw away and walk away,'' says Ft. Wayne, Ind., Mayor Paul Helmke, the new president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors. ""But that causes problems: you leave dead zones in cities.''

Now cities are fighting harder for investment dollars - and they're getting new tools to help them. Last week's budget agreement includes $1.5 billion to clean up brownfields, the first-ever federal funds to help remove pollution. Some states are also loosening environmental regulations by allowing partially cleaned up land to be reused by industry. Says Carnegie Mellon professor Sue McNeil: ""You don't have to clean up every site to the point a child can sit and eat the dirt.'' Cities are also realizing that building factories isn't the only way to recycle industrial land. Dayton, Ohio, boasts new apartments and condos on a brownfield; Dallas is wooing a pharmacy chain for another.

For Toledo there's no jackpot bigger than Jeep. Its workers earn the highest blue-collar wages in the area; spending by the plant and its employees accounts for 9 percent of the region's economy. The tradition is almost as important as the economics: the oldest workers can still remember building the Jeeps used in the Korean War, long before today's Cherokees and Wranglers became chic Yuppiemobiles. Away from the plant, the news in Toledo is mildly upbeat: from his 22d-floor office Mayor Finkbeiner can point to the new Owens-Corning headquarters and new restaurants, but vacant storefronts and FOR LEASE signs fill downtown. Keeping Jeep may have been mostly about maintaining the economic status quo, but Finkbeiner, a former football coach, will take a win any way he can. Says local economist William Prebe: ""Toledo hasn't won something like this in a long time.''

Its prize will open in 2001: a modern, high-ceilinged auto plant with skylights and the latest technology. The factory will sit on vacant land surrounding a small existing Chrysler facility in a north-side neighborhood. Unlike most urban brownfields, the site on Stickney Avenue has big advantages: existing rail lines, a location just yards from Interstate 75 and relatively minor pollution and landfills to clean up. Workers won't miss the existing 90-year-old plant, spread through 61 buildings on five floors, with its leaky roof. ""When I [first] walked into Toledo, I was amazed we could even build a vehicle there,'' says Dennis Pawley, Chrysler's top manufacturing exec. ""Those people do a tremendous job.'' For U.S. cities, the new Chrysler plant will be one more success story of how empty urban acres can be revitalized. But for workers like John Kanneman, who has punched a Jeep time clock since 1973, it yields more tangible benefits: unlike the folks who work in factories amid cornfields, he'll continue walking to work.