Toledo's Makeover: Glass City to Solar Valley

Ohio city, battered by job losses, turns to solar power to reinvent itself.

December 16, 2008, 6:05 PM

Dec. 17, 2008— -- In Toledo, once the glass-making capital of the country, most of the city's output over the years has gone into making everything from windshields to windows for cars and buildings.

But as the auto and construction industries have declined, so too, has Toledo's manufacturing sector.

For Glen Eason, a manufacturing worker, supplying the auto industry meant waiting for the ax to fall.

"I've been scared to death for the past 10 years, to tell you the truth," said Eason, a Toledo native and 30-year auto supply industry veteran.

Marty Vick, 58, also spent 30 years working at an auto supplier, making seats and dashboards, only to see his job disappear. His company laid off 117 people in January.

"I never thought I'd see the day that GM, Ford and Chrysler would be at the brink of bankruptcy," Vick said.

That has left entire cities, including Toledo, on the brink. With its smokestack industries dying out, Toledo saw the writing on the wall and did something about it.

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To secure its future, Toledo, once known as the Glass City, embraced its past; Toledo is where glass was first mass-produced for bottles, buildings, and cars. Now, the city is turning those skills -- and that tradition -- to the sun.

New solar energy-related businesses are taking hold in what city officials and local executives hope will become Ohio's "solar valley."

"We didn't envision there would be some bailout of Toledo, so we had to do it ourselves," said Norm Johnston, CEO of Solar Fields, a solar startup company. "We want to move from being the 'rust belt' to being the 'renewable energy belt.'"

Solar Fields is on the forefront of the fast-growing "green industry," supplying panels that help power a National Guard base. It is one of dozens of new companies in Toledo that now make rivers of glass into solar cells, panels and coatings.

"Our goal is to create jobs. What we like and what our favorite color is -- is green. But it's the green of cash that gives you good jobs," Johnston said.

Town Has Brighter Mission With Solar Power

In Ohio's "solar valley," 10,000 new jobs have taken root. Companies, like Xunlight, founded by researchers at the University of Toledo, are growing fast, working with experts to manufacture solar products and hiring new employees to become "green collar" workers.

"Last year, we grew 300 percent -- from 20 employees to 80 employees today," said Xunming Deng, a physics professor-turned CEO of Xunlight Corp.

Executives hired from rust-belt companies, who are accustomed to downsizing, have a brighter mission in the solar business.

"In the last position, it was about how do we get rid of people," said Matt Longthorne, vice president of Xunlight. "And in this position, it's how do we hire people and get bigger."

Many of Xunlight's workers once made auto parts: everything from windshields to vinyl seats. Now they turn out thin, flexible solar modules that power homes and businesses.

What Vick gave up in hourly wages working for an auto supplier, he's gained in a brighter future -- working in the solar industry, he has more job security than ever before.

"This is really high tech, cutting edge for me," Vick said. "It's really, really challenging and I like it."

Eason, who has also gone to a job in green technology, is enthusiastic, seeing his native Toledo switching gears.

"Just to be part of something that's growing and something that's good for the planet and good for the people," Eason said. "Solar is going to be so immense. Solar is the new oil."

Toledo is bailing itself out from the faded glory of the Glass City to the shiny promise of the Solar Valley.

"You have all this wonderful energy that the sun is sending to us for free and we're devising ways to capture it and put it to use," Eason said. "In this area, we're in the forefront and everybody else is going to have to catch up with us."