Rich Man With a Cause

Burton Morgan discovers that big money and bigger ideas can't buy Hudson's love.

Merle Haggard Thistledown Racing Club, 21501 Emery Road, North Randall 6 p.m., Sunday, May 27



Morgan had a model built of the proposed world - trade center in Mansfield, his biggest idea yet. - Thom  Sheridan
Morgan had a model built of the proposed world trade center in Mansfield, his biggest idea yet.
Burton Morgan -- entrepreneur, author, and big thinker -- made his first million around age 50. Though now retired from business, he's not the retiring sort. He maintains a high profile in well-to-do Hudson, freely doling out criticism of city leaders and generally making a nuisance of himself. He is not just another disgruntled citizen, however. No, Burton Morgan has ideas, and he's willing to back up his words with cash.

Hudson officials would prefer that he quietly go home. They've continually rejected his alternatives for their downtown redevelopment plan. They've used their newsletter to defend themselves from Morgan's critiques. And though they are loath to speak freely, they seem to view Morgan as the 800-pound gorilla who won't go away. Gentility just prevents them from saying so publicly.

There are reminders of Hudson's past all around Morgan. He's called this "little historic town" home for 40 years and keeps an office in his Park Place Hotel, designed in "abandoned New England-cotton-mill style" to conform with surroundings. On the city green, below his expansive half-moon window, sits a log cabin built by Boy Scouts in the 1930s. Down the street is Hudson's foremost landmark, the clock tower, erected in 1912. Perched nearby is a picturesque bandstand, already a landmark in its own right. Morgan says that was his idea, and that he was the largest contributor when it was built in 1976.

While most of the commercial buildings in town were constructed after a fire swept through Main Street in 1892, at least 200 homes date to the 19th century. Many bear the HH plaque of the Hudson Heritage Association. The oldest, built in 1806, belonged to village founder David Hudson.

Hudsonites tend to be proud of their bicentennial community, and a vocal few don't want it to change. It's always been that way, at least from what James F. Caccamo can glean in old newspaper stories. "This town does have a history of bickering and dithering about everything," says the Hudson Library & Historical Society archivist.

This is "a city of 22,000 people that still considers itself a small town," Caccamo says. "The town actually looks like it was frozen in time in the 1950s."

Some preservationists adhere to romantic notions of postwar America, a time when everybody shopped on Main Street and knew everyone else in town. The reality is, shoppers don't flock to Main Street anymore -- a situation the city is trying to remedy with its redevelopment plan. It intends to turn what is now an industrial site into a pedestrian-friendly shopping area, replete with offices, restaurants, and a new library. The goal, according to City Manager Mike Morton, is to make Hudson's downtown the focal point of community life, as it was in earlier times.

But Burt Morgan doesn't think the plan will work. And he aims to ram that point home.

"This is the big picture. It's the correct picture," Morgan says of his plans for Hudson. "Those other guys [the developers] are trying to make money."

He's already made his. As an engineer for companies like B.F. Goodrich and Johnson & Johnson, Morgan dabbled in entrepreneurial side projects to little avail until he formed Morgan Adhesives in 1959. As soon as he obtained financing, he printed stationery that proclaimed: "Morgan Adhesives: The world's greatest manufacturer of self-adhesive products." Humility is not in his nature.

He admits to having little patience. When he wrote Start at the Top, his first book about becoming an entrepreneur,< he didn't want to jump through publishing industry hoops. "To hell with you guys," he said. "I'll start a publishing company."

Summit Publishing was born. It exists to print the Morgan canon. His latest book, Anecdotes, depicts him on the cover in rakish pose, drink in one hand and cigar in the other. It's a casual retelling of some of his favorite stories, like the time 3M, his biggest competitor, accused him of infringing on a patent. He had his secretary look up two random patent numbers -- "They were probably for diapers or something" -- and shot back a letter accusing 3M of infringing on those. That was the last he heard from them.

"He's very focused on what he's interested in, and he doesn't understand the word no," friend Bill Fellows says. "With him, if you say no, he just goes the other way."

Morgan began suggesting alternatives to Hudson's redevelopment plan last October. At one point, he offered $5 million for the city-owned land, so he could develop it his way.

He thinks a civic center "with lots of green space" would be more in keeping with Hudson's history. "I don't think they can develop a profit-making commercial center. It's too small, and it's too hard to get traffic into. Real shopping centers are like Wal-Mart -- huge." In Morgan's opinion, a shopping center, even a classy one with small, upscale stores, will fail. "Of course, it will fail after my lifetime, but that's not what we like to see in Hudson."

City officials wouldn't comment on Morgan, but their exasperation is evident. Last month, they sent a newsletter to residents about the redevelopment project, devoting a section to Morgan. It notes that he "was invited to participate as a developer last spring, but he declined, stating that other developers were more qualified." Then he changed his mind and has since submitted four different plans. "None has the potential to fully revitalize the downtown core."

Undaunted, Morgan maintains that his vision is the right one. "But I can't talk anybody into it."

Not everyone interprets Morgan's motives as altruistic. "He wants to run the show and he can't, and it's totally frustrating to him," says one resident. In keeping with Hudsonian decorum, she considers the redevelopment controversy too delicate to discuss publicly.

Morgan admits he was a dictator as a company president and hasn't necessarily mellowed with time. "People are either for me or against me. They can't be neutral about a guy who speaks out."

But when he asked for City Manager Morton's resignation at an April council meeting, he "crossed the line," says the resident. "It was awful for him to do that, totally inexcusable."

Morgan is certainly hitting some buttons over at Town Hall. John Krum, the normally mild-mannered mayor, was visibly peeved at the council meeting -- particularly after a few residents rallied to Morgan's resignation call.

Krum rose to Morton's aid. "We've had controversy for as many years as I've been on council, and that is only a natural thing. But when I hear people saying that the city manager should resign, then my dander gets up. I think this entire city is so very fortunate; we are blessed to have this gentleman as our city manager."

Though such polite discourse would be considered quaint to the rest of Northeast Ohio, where verbal brawling is the preferred method of governance, such incidents are traumatic in Hudson. Krum declined further comment, saying, "This whole matter is incredibly sensitive." Morton also had no comment.

Even Morgan admits the city manager is a "good guy." He only called for his resignation, he says, to get the city's attention. He's concerned that Morton and the council will try to push through redevelopment without public approval. And Morgan is not about to lie down until he gets his say.

"He's quite a guy, isn't he?" asks Fellows, who has known Morgan since the mid-'60s. "So many people take him the wrong way. All he wants to do is good."

Of course, "It has to be good his way," Fellows adds.

For all his admitted hardheadedness, Morgan comes across as affable and down-to-earth. Callers are often startled that he answers his office phone himself. "Hello, you lucky boy," he's fond of saying. "Here I am."

His accessibility is one reason he's not a voting member of his own foundation. If he determined where the money went, "My phone would be ringing day and night."

The Burton D. Morgan Foundation, established in 1967 to "preserve and encourage America's greatest asset, the free enterprise system," is now a mature fund that ended 2000 with $84 million in assets. It has recently stepped up its donations, giving $8 million each to the College of Wooster and Denison University in Granville, Ohio, to construct buildings that will bear Morgan's name.

Plans went awry, however, for two buildings in Hudson that would have been named after the multimillionaire. The foundation's commitment of $2.2 million for a new elementary school was contingent on the passage of a school bond issue, which failed. And a $6 million grant to Western Reserve Academy for a new building was rescinded when the school changed the site -- in part, because some alumni feared it would block the view of the campus's historic Brick Row. Foundation trustees preferred the original site, and the two institutions parted ways.

Morgan shrugs off those who think the academy fiasco was a setback in his quest for immortality. "I want to leave something for future generations, something worthwhile. But putting my name on it isn't as important as you might think."

Foundation trustee Stanley C. Gault, a Morgan friend for 20 years, calls him a "very generous man." "He's done a tremendous amount of beneficial things for many people and many organizations, many of which are not known."

Morgan doesn't mind that his name is attached to decisions he had nothing to do with. "I stand right out. I take the hits." And no, he doesn't agree with everything his foundation does, "but I can't have high-class men like that [on the board] and tell them I don't approve."

Besides, he's got bigger things on his mind. He purchased 1,000 acres of land around a military airport in Mansfield because he's convinced it's the perfect site for a global trade center where U.S. companies would exchange goods -- duty-free -- with companies from around the world. Modeled after trade centers in Germany, China, and other countries, it would include manufacturing plants and an airport capable of handling huge cargo planes. Nothing like it exists in the United States.

The idea has been on the table, in one form or another, for three decades. It is, after all, no easy task compelling others to think of Mansfield as the epicenter of American industry. Even so, Morgan, at 84, hasn't given up. Now that Republicans are back in the White House, he and his Morgan Freeport Corporation board are stepping up efforts to convince the U.S. government to fund the $4.2 billion project. Their chances of success are "pretty bad," he concedes.

Still, he presses on. Five years ago, he set up Morganovich Air with a Russian partner. The company hopes to lease planes and fly them between Samara, Russia, and Mansfield.

The idea of establishing international air service between two obscure cities is not as ludicrous as it seems, says economist Dr. Lucille G. Ford, who's on the Freeport board. "The big airstrip is there, [and] Ohio is strategically located, as far as production of the country is concerned."

Fellows, a business consultant for nearly 40 years, sees the need for such a center and is impressed with Morgan's ability to conceive it. "He's way ahead of us mentally. He just has a vision."

Still, this particular vision, like his ideas for Hudson, may be too unwieldy, irrespective of Morgan's money and inventiveness. He's "going to try to make it to [age] 100," but he realizes he may never see the project leave the ground.

Ever the big thinker, Morgan nevertheless relishes the enormity of the undertaking. "That's what makes it fun, [not like] this little old monkey business in Hudson, where everybody hates you."

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