East Toledo developer Don Monroe, then director of the now-defunct River East Economic Revitalization Corporation, came up with a plan to develop a mini-version of Cleveland’s “Flats” in International Park in 1995.
Then-Mayor Carty Finkbeiner gave his support to the redevelopment of the 10,000 square foot Streets, Bridges, and Harbors building in the park. Monroe saw the old metal building on the river becoming a center of dining, entertainment and specialized retail shops.
However, the idea of a restaurant in International Park had been born nearly two decades prior. An adopted plan of the park in 1978 showed the building with restaurants, entertainment, and retail shops.
“Having a restaurant has always been a part of the plans drawn up for the park 20 years ago,” Fred Harrington, then the president of the International Park board, told The Press in January, 1996. “It is amazing that it is finally becoming a reality. Slowly but surely, the park is finally coming into its own. I think the restaurant will definitely increase the visibility of the park and hopefully, it will act as a magnet for additional private investments in the park,” Harrington said.
|The Docks is a hot spot for boaters along the Maumee River. (Press file
photo by Ken Grosjean)
Tom Cousino, then 49-years-old, was the first restaurateur to sign on — proposing Old Navy Bistro, an upscale steakhouse. The owners of Cousino’s Steak House and Cafe Chez Vin, his family had been in the restaurant business half a century.
Cousino invested $500,000 of his own money to build the new 6,500 foot eatery.
“Tom took all the risk,” Monroe said. “It was an unknown entity when the city sent out 72 proposals for the building. The only one who came back and said he was interested was Tom.”
Council voted 10-2 in favor of the city kicking in another $550,000 out of the economic development budget and an estimated 160 jobs were brought to the east side.
Cousino would add his Mexican-cuisine Tango’s restaurant along with Eileen’s Wine Shop and The Courtyard at The Docks. Old Navy Bistro later became Navy Bistro because of a trademark conflict with the Old Navy clothing company.
The original plans called for the restaurants to pay $177,000 a year for rent, totalling $1.7 million in 10 years. The restaurants collectively spent over $3 million on revamping the cavernous space. Banks were expected to issue $1.6 million in bonds to improve utilities and add another 400 parking spaces.
All of the restaurants have outdoor patios and the city extended 300 feet of dock space, adding another 300 feet. At the Navy Bistro, interior designer Joe Marconi enlightened the atmosphere with his nautical theme.
One year after opening, Mayor Finkbeiner was proud of what had developed.
“Cousino’s Bistro is reasonably recognized as one of the most successful restaurants in the state in a very short amount of time,” Finkbeiner said. “For pure, sheer enjoyment, it just doesn’t beat coming to the east side of Toledo, walking, strolling, or dining and it sure didn’t take others a very long time to want to come.”
Finkbeiner gave all the credit to Cousino.
“It took your vision and your dollars to bring the number of people to this side of the river. God Bless you,” Finkbeiner said.
In recent weeks, all of Cousino’s restaurants at The Docks closed because of falling revenues, increasing expenses, and money owed to the city for rent. His steakhouse on Woodville Road remains open.
“The Docks wouldn’t be there without Tom,” said Councilman Mike Craig. “Tom had a lot of money invested there, but whoever comes in next, all the restaurants are there. They have got all the equipment, they have tables. You can redecorate some, but really the restaurant is there.”
The Docks continue, however. Zia’s Southern Italian Restaurant and the Ann Arbor-based Real Seafood Company, with both 7,000 square feet facilities open in the spring of 1997, remain. A previous Real Seafood had closed at downtown’s Portside Festival Marketplace in 1989. The 9,600 square foot Hoster Brewing Company, which also opened in 1997, closed years ago and other restaurants filling that space have followed suit. When The Docks complex was full, it was estimated 250 to 300 jobs were created.
Toledo Deputy Mayor Dean Monske said Dashing Pacific Group, LLC, a Chinese firm, has signed an agreement to purchase The Docks for $2.15 million. Monske said the Chinese developers have presented some ideas to improve the property.
“They are talking about some different things, like bringing lighting technology that we don’t have here, and different things to actually make it better than it is now,” Monske said.
“So, we look at it as being a huge benefit in bringing a new investment, some new excitement, and unfortunately with Tom and (wife) Eileen (Cousino) going out, that does open up space for others to now reinvest money into those spots — refresh them, excite them, and now you have new ownership that’s going to put some money in,” Monske continued.
“The goal is now to try and turn that back into a destination place where people want to go and certainly there are other opportunities on the waterfront as well. This will continue to be a catalyst towards that.”