In January 1996, British Petroleum announced it was going to close the Lima Refinery, ending the city’s 112-year tradition in the oil business. Its demise would leave a hole in Allen County’s economic and tax bases, pinch a school district and strand hundreds of skilled workers and countless vendors and sub-contractors.
The city was knocked to its knees.
What was tragic, however, turned out to be David Berger’s finest moment as Lima’s mayor.
Working behind the scenes with a handful of business leaders, the mayor put together a task force that worked non-stop to find a way to keep the refinery from closing. A turning point came when they captured the interest of David Stockman, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget under President Ronald Reagan, who now was a partner of the New York-based private equity company, the Blackstone Group.
With time running out, the group was able to get the attention of William C. Rusnack, president of Clark USA. Clark officials liked what they saw. Along with several members of the task force, Clark officials flew to London on June 1 to discuss a sale with BP. There was one condition, though: BP insisted the Lima mayor remain on the other side of the Atlantic. It wanted the mayor kept in the dark.
“If word would leak to me, they would cancel the negotiations,” Berger said. “The irony was that I was not just knowledgeable but a stimulus for their discussion.”
On July 2, 1998 — just months before the refinery was to shut down and only 32 days after Clark and BP held their initial meeting — the headlines in The Lima News said it all: “Oil refinery rescued - Clark USA will keep oil flowing, jobs growing.”
The “pest” had prevailed.
The major piece of positive news that had escaped Lima for nearly 20 years had arrived. Lima Refinery Manager Don Kuenzli called it “a great day for us and, we believe, an especially great day for the company and the entire community.”
Playing long ball
The business world, however, is not one to sit idle while people take their bows.
By the time the 21st century arrived, roughly half the 20,000 industrial jobs Lima boasted of 50 years earlier were gone. The city, which reached a peak population of more than 53,000 in the 1970 census, saw it drop to 35,579 in the most recent 2020 census. Likewise, Allen County fell from a high of more than 111,000 residents in 1980 to just over 102,000 today.
Having led the effort to save the Lima Refinery, Berger became viewed by the community as the “change agent” who could deliver a home run.
A confident mayor, meanwhile, was ready to step to the plate.
There would be hits and misses — plans to bring life to downtown, the closing of a prison, initiatives for job retention, a partnership with Lima City Schools and the grand slam of them all — locating a revolutionary energy company on land once occupied by the Lima Locomotive Works.
“There are times when community engagement can be effective, and there are other times when you do battle even though there’s really nothing you can do. You lose, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t fight,” Berger said.
Dreams can die hard, and that certainly happened with Global Energy.
The announcement in November 1999 made for huge headlines: a Cincinnati energy company planned to build a $500 million power plant at the former Lima Locomotive Works, once the home of the largest employer in the county.
Husky plant manager Jim Walpole arranged a meeting between the owners of Global Energy and the mayor of Lima. Berger liked what he heard and took it from there.
Global Energy was to create about 120 jobs in filling the long-vacant locomotive industrial location. It would operate new technology not yet in use in the United States. Global would use a combination of coal and municipal waste to create synthetic gas. The gas would then be used to power a pair of turbines that would generate enough electricity to supply 500,000 homes.
It never came close to happening.
Eighteen years of hope and unmet expectations saw the land essentially unused. In 2017, the Global dream officially ended when the Lima Husky Refinery purchased the property. Today, a concrete footprint of a future building is all that is present, sitting amongst the weeds like a giant tombstone.
While the Global Energy announcement in 1999 didn’t pan out, there was another headline earlier that year that would challenge how well the city could work with the Lima school system: The state of Ohio would pay for most of a $99.8 million project that called for building seven new school buildings and renovating two others, providing the school district kick in $10 million to the project.
A collaborative effort saw the passage of the levy and the selection of building sites. The new Lima Senior building would be built on one of the entranceways from Interstate 75 to downtown. It also would call for the purchase and demolition of blocks of crime-infested housing known as “the Snake Pit.”
“It was the most deteriorated neighborhood in the city,” Berger recalled. “There was an apartment complex that was really a source of enormous violence, as well as the surrounding blocks that had been abandoned. If you look at everything that’s happened to improve that corridor into the city, an enormous amount of work took place over an extended period of time to make it happen.”
Throughout his administration, the downtown has always been an area of focus. Through private and public funding, it has seen the building of a downtown hotel, parking garage and the YMCA. A major expansion also took place at St. Rita’s Medical Center. And recently, the Rhodes State College Borra Center for Health Sciences opened.
Next up is the restoration of the 147 S. Main St. building to include restaurant and office space, as well as the development of a park and amphitheater directly across from the building on the other side of Spring Street.
“Until COVID, we’d rebuilt our economy to its best condition in over 40 years,” Berger said. “We have downtown renewal underway. There’s really an unmistakable sense we’ve defended a number of our industries from being destroyed, such as the refinery and the tank plant. There are lots of things I think we’ve been able to work with folks across partisan lines to get lots done.”
There were also projects that only a government official could truly appreciate.
John Nixon, longtime president of Lima City Council’s president, credited Berger for working out a water policy that allowed growth outside the city limits by providing low-cost water to industrial sites. He also acknowledged the lasting effects of non-withdrawal annexation as a way to help businesses and subdivisions grow in townships.
“One thing no one can take away from Dave Berger as the mayor of the City of Lima: He redefined the work ethic of the mayor,” Nixon said. “Dave is a hard-working man and puts in a lot of hours to get things done.”