Fields of Dreams

They all built it, but no one's coming.

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When they gathered to break ground, the mayor predicted it would create 200 jobs. The Chamber of Commerce director likened it to an art museum, its future tenants to masterpieces. The community college president said it would take on Silicon Valley.

Two years later, Sheffield Village's business park has a road, paid for by a $400,000 state grant. It also has sewers and water lines. Property taxes from new businesses were supposed to cover those, but a small problem arose: There aren't any businesses. The park is empty.

Sheffield isn't the only community to see its lofty dreams now resemble a vacant field. In the 1990s, no suburban mayor dared to call himself "forward-thinking" without a new industrial park on his résumé. It was the municipal version of the dot-com craze: Conventional wisdom decreed that cities need only buy land, throw in basic infrastructure, and -- presto! -- new businesses with big payrolls would line up at the door. "Build it and they will come, that's what I always say," says Sheffield Village Mayor Darlene Ondercin.

The logic, of course, was flawed. There wasn't enough new business to go around. As the number of new parks multiplied, cities were forced to promise free roads, free sewers, and get-out-of-taxes-free cards with wild abandon. Even the giveaways weren't enough. Across suburbia, much of the land that was supposed to spin gold remains dirt brown.

Sheffield seemed to have all the right amenities: good I-90 access in an area flush with sprawl, wooded land, and a government willing to offer tax breaks. Didn't help.

Avon Lake's park fared only slightly better. The city won an $888,000 federal grant and chipped in almost $1 million of its own, expecting to fill its 200-acre site. Almost three years later, Pin Oak Parkway has attracted exactly two tenants: a dry cleaner and a seven-employee heating and cooling biz. The latter received a tax break from the city; the former is, again, a dry cleaner.

In Eastlake, John Chiappetta won $8 million from the state to develop a 42-acre park. He moved his Mentor sheet metal company there in 1998. But not only did Chiappetta fail to draw additional tenants; his own business collapsed. Today, Ohio is trying to sell the empty $5 million digs at a sheriff's sale. Enterprise Drive lies otherwise fallow.

Few stories are quite that pathetic, but near-empty parks and failed gimmicks are everywhere. Great Lakes Development, which is developing Vermilion's parkway, went so far as to promise free boats or planes to new companies willing to move in. The offer earned it ink in the house organ of the executive set, Crain's Cleveland Business, but no takers, admits Vice President Howard Moss.

"Three years ago, you couldn't find a building if your life depended on it," says Terry Coyne, a senior vice president at Grubb and Ellis. "Now, whether it's a private developer or a city that owns them, they're dead."

One reason is the economy. In the last two years, few companies have expanded or built. Yet even when the economy picks up, too many parks will be competing for too few tenants. Coyne estimates it will take two years of a robust economy just to restore equilibrium.

And even parks with modest success haven't brought new industry to the region. In many instances, state dollars are being used simply to assist one city in robbing another.

Painesville got assistance from the state to develop its 44-acre parkway, then lured companies from Mentor and Solon with big tax breaks. Mentor also lost firms to newer parks in Eastlake and Perry Township, each funded partially with state money, each seeking tax breaks for the move.

In 2002 alone, the Ohio Department of Development donated $10 million to various industrial roadways and made $77 million in low-interest loans for expanding or moving companies. The department trills that its efforts have retained or created zillions of jobs, but its projections seem suspect. After all, Eastlake's empty park -- built with $5 million in low-interest bonds and $3 million in state-subsidized loans -- was supposed to bring 800 jobs.

Critics say state financing does little but encourage sprawl and help thriving cities prey on their older neighbors. "With most of these, it isn't new jobs being created for Ohio or even Greater Cleveland," says Lake County Commissioner Daniel Troy. "It's jobs moving from northern Summit County to southern Cuyahoga County, or vice versa."

"It defies logic," says Mentor City Manager Julian Suso.

The state is unapologetic. "Especially with the economy we have now, it's important to assist these companies," says Chad Munitz, the department's assistant deputy director. "This is a global marketplace, and they're in competition with companies all around the globe."

Munitz is convinced there is no market glut: "Everything's cyclical. There's an ebb and flow. But we have a long way to go before the state is saturated with good industrial sites."

As long as Ohio passes out the money, cities won't stop developing. Lorain, despite being nearly broke, is hoping to buy a 400-acre site. Olmsted Falls and Olmsted Township are developing a joint effort. Strongsville bought 182 acres and plans to break ground next year, with a healthy dose of state assistance.

Politicians list dozens of reasons why their parks will succeed where others failed. Every list starts with "location"; development directors from Ashtabula to Vermilion are convinced the highway interchange nearest them is the most strategic.

Even Sheffield Village isn't giving up. Despite being completely vacant, its French Creek Business Park is about to double in size. "Sometimes you have to spend money to make money," Mayor Ondercin says.

After all, savvy politicians everywhere still believe that if you build it, they will come. Even if no one is answering their RSVPs.

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