A Dan of Action

Entrepreneur, inventor, former owner of Whiskey Island. He even considered running for mayor. Now Dan T. Moore III is working to make Cleveland his biggest turnaround project of all.

I'm drinking a beer at the Whiskey Island Marina bar when I sense someone standing close to me. Very close.

Whoever it is, he's trying to scare me. But I'm determined not to be frightened.

I turn, very slowly, and see someone wearing a gorilla mask.

"Hello, Erick," the gorilla says.

Then he pulls the mask off, revealing a full head of white hair and a chiseled nose, chin and smile that remind me a bit of Cary Grant.

That's my introduction to Dan T. Moore III, millionaire entrepreneur and longtime owner of much of Whiskey Island, the remote, undeveloped peninsula where the Cuyahoga River meets Lake Erie.

A friend has invited me to explore the abandoned Coast Guard station at the end of Whiskey Island with her and Moore.

Moore originally wanted to hide in the station and come jumping out of it when we got there. But he decided to settle for trying to spook me in the bar. He recounts all this in a high-pitched, cultured voice with a hint of money in it, or maybe just a hint of private school.

I expected a tough, serious businessman, not a thrill-seeking practical joker. It's early October 2003, and Moore has just been in the news for provoking a fight between Cleveland Mayor Jane Campbell and the Cuyahoga County commissioners. He's walked away from negotiations with the city and wants to sell Whiskey Island to the county instead. Suddenly, the city and county have both decided this obscure strip of land is vital lakefront property worth fighting a civil war.

It's terrible timing, because the feeling is sinking in that Cleveland's comeback is over. The city needs strong leaders to reverse its massive job losses. Instead, our leaders can't seem to agree on anything — not a convention center plan, not even who'll create a park on 20 acres of woods and fields behind the Cargill salt mine. Commentators are mad at Moore too, for playing one government against the other. A Plain Dealer editorial has just called him a "deadbeat" for not paying his partnership's back taxes on the land.

But we don't talk much about that tonight. Instead, Moore helps plot how we'll get into the Coast Guard station. A young couple at the bar overhears us, asks about our plan, and Moore invites them along. Soon we're off, into Whiskey Island's woods, past its volleyball courts, across a field and down to the river.

The lights of the Flats shimmer on the water to the south. To the east, downtown towers above tall piles of gravel: the old courthouse standing guard on the cliff, Key Tower and Terminal Tower surveying the lakefront. We're looking up at it from an angle we've never seen, from a quiet place that feels secret, and it's like seeing the city for the first time.

Moore is always chasing a new thrill, a eureka moment, a breakthrough. In the past year, Moore, 65, has personally negotiated the sale of his Whiskey Island land to the county, then oversaw its cleanup. He looked into running for mayor of Cleveland, attending two-dozen meetings with Cleveland residents to hear what they want from a mayor. He decided not to run, then organized a new nonprofit group, Action Cleveland, to craft the terms of debate in the mayor's race. He attempted to buy an auto parts manufacturer and an old factory, worked to turn around an ailing company he'd just bought in Cleveland, ran his other companies and flew to the Caribbean to pilot his sailboat out of hurricane territory.

"He has more energy than anyone I've met," says Moore's youngest daughter Halley, 34, a writing instructor at New York University. "Both my parents do. They actually exhaust me. They'll want to get up at 5 [a.m.] to go bike-riding. It's: How many things can you pack in one day?"

Innovating and building new businesses excite Moore more than anything. As a paint salesman in his late 20s, he got his company's researchers to create a new grease that helped General Motors cars repel rust. In the 1970s, he founded two companies that make innovative auto parts. A self-taught engineering whiz who broke down and rebuilt car and motorcycle engines as a teen, Moore personally holds 22 patents, mostly for auto parts and advanced polymer and ceramic materials he's invented.

Moore made his first million by his mid-30s. Then he joined in the buyout of Elyria-based Invacare in 1979 that installed his friend Mal Mixon as CEO and propelled the company's annual sales from the tens of millions of dollars to more than a billion dollars. He's an expert at buying and fixing troubled companies. He bought the struggling Advanced Ceramics from Union Carbide in 1993 for a few million dollars, cured what ailed it, and sold it for a reported $100 million.

Today, Moore's four companies' products range from car parts to military helmets. He estimates his net worth at $30 million to $55 million.

Now that the city where he's built his businesses suffers, Moore's long-dormant interest in public service, inspired by his father, a wartime spy, has reawakened. He and some friends want Cleveland's next mayor to be an innovator with an entrepreneur's nimble urgency who'll bring new jobs to town. They tried recruiting a candidate, even advertising for one on an Internet job board. Instead, Moore is now trying to influence the next mayor and offer him or her an army of experts and businesspeople, ready to help solve the city's problems.

At a time when Cleveland seems listless, out of new ideas, struggling for jobs and hope, Moore wants to make Cleveland his biggest turnaround project of all.

Down the river to the north, the Coast Guard station, a sleek, '30s-modern lighthouse with no light on, stands against the dark expanse of Lake Erie. The walkway we're on becomes a long pier that leads right to it. A chain-link fence on the pier marks the end of Moore's property and reminds us we'll be trespassing. For the several hundred feet between here and the station, Moore warns, we'll be exposed to any boat that goes by the river; it'll be obvious where we're going.

So we walk fast, up the river and onto the pier, then climb the fence. No boats go by as we hurry along the pier, and soon we reach the station's weedy platform. We gaze around at the empty boat garage and up at the white lookout tower.

Moore signals for our attention as we walk toward it. "We're not alone." Homeless people live out here sometimes, he says. One might be here.

He heads into the station, looking for trouble. Shadows of debris — a destroyed piano, pieces of ceiling and wall — clutter our path. How could you ever spot someone in this mess? I wonder, until I slowly realize Moore's warning is just part of his haunted-house bit.

At the tower stairs, Moore dares us to turn our flashlights off and warns of missing floorboards and stairs. Not falling through them will be part of the game.

Carefully, we inch up the stairs. An old handrail I'd been clinging to ends. I flick my light on and off for a second at a time to check the steps. We get to the second floor, between stairwells, and Moore, just visible in the dark, points out where to walk so we don't fall through the holes.

On the second set of stairs, the girl in front of me screams. I turn my flashlight on. "Turn it off!" she says, enjoying the scare.

Right near the top, stairs are missing. I imagine another one giving out and realize there's no help for a mile. Well, I just won't fall, I decide, and I take the giant step to the lookout ledge.

Finally, I see sky. Moore warns us not to let anyone see our lights. All around us is the lake, quiet and black. Whiskey Island's trees loom to the south. Against so much darkness, downtown looks impossibly bright and perfect.

Picture Dan Moore's wedding day in June 1964: the young college grad marrying his high school sweetheart. At the reception at Shaker Heights' Canterbury Country Club, one of the groom's college friends handcuffs him to a chair. As the bride and groom ride away from the reception, another throws a fish through the open car window. Then a car full of groomsmen chases them, eager to disrupt the wedding night. The best man (Jonathan Fairbank, now a doctor in Vermont), riding shotgun in the couple's car, chucks fireworks out the window in retaliation. The lovely bride, Marge, is hysterical, but the groom's father, Dan T. Moore Jr., at the wheel of the honeymoon getaway car, peels coolly through Shaker Heights at terrifying speeds, listening to the firecrackers crack and shouting in glee, "This is just like Cairo during the war!"

Moore's father, a New Dealer who ran the Securities and Exchange Commission's Midwest office in the 1930s, got a new job during World War II: spy. He was a top counterintelligence officer in the Middle East for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA; his job included keeping up relations with Egypt's King Farouk and playing backgammon with him, his son says. After the war, he wrote short stories and books, tried to build hotels in the Middle East with Eliot Ness (even moving young Dan and family to Istanbul, Turkey, for a few years) and finally made a successful living as a public speaker.

Moore's father befriended prominent Clevelanders and lived in a big house in Cleveland Heights, but the failed hotel venture left Moore's mother buying thrift-store clothes for her kids for a while. The young Dan "managed to live fully in the established world of Cleveland, but I don't think it was easy financially," says Moore's boyhood friend, George Crile III, a producer for "60 Minutes" and grandson of The Cleveland Clinic's founder. "He had to operate in two worlds. One was the world of people not having to worry about money, about how to pay for school, or for that matter, your clothes. The other is the people who do." When you talk with Moore about his past, he drops names he figures everyone knows, as if Cleveland is still a small town made up of prominent families.

Moore went to University School, as much to give him specialized attention as a footing in the upper class; he stuttered badly as a boy and struggled in public school. Decades later, he learned he was dyslexic. He paid part of his own way to Trinity College in Connecticut, then Harvard Business School, by founding a tree-trimming business that grew to 14 employees and several trucks. He'd burn the wood at big, wild bonfire keg parties, remembers Fairbank.

Excitement and commitment to public service, more than money, were the Moore family legacy. Moore's grandfather, Dan T. Moore Sr., founded the U.S. Army's first artillery school, the School of Fire, in 1911. Before that, Moore claims, he was a military attaché for President Theodore Roosevelt, the "young captain of artillery" in Roosevelt's autobiography who smashed the president's left eye in a boxing match, permanently dimming his sight. Moore's uncle by marriage was Drew Pearson, the Washington columnist. His mother, a sculptor and painter who once exhibited in the Cleveland Museum of Art's May Show, tutored at Cleveland elementary schools for 40 years, into her 90s; Moore credits her with instilling a social conscience in him.

When Moore graduated from business school in 1966, the students were required to write down their goal. Inspired by John F. Kennedy, intoxicated by Cleveland's '60s-era vitality, he wrote: Become mayor of Cleveland.

Moore's youthful dream reawoke last year, when he, Mixon, and some of their business colleagues were lamenting Cleveland's decline and decided to do something about it. At first, they wanted to play kingmaker; they tried to recruit a new mayor who would bring jobs to town. They looked at the "normal cast of characters" and found them wanting. They decided the mayor of Cleveland should be someone like them, a businessperson with experience leading a big organization.

They even placed this anonymous ad on Monster.com:

Seeking qualified applicants for mayor of a major city in the United States — recently named No. 1 in poverty. Successful candidate will have a proven managerial track record and significant experience as a change agent in "turn-around" situations. ... Applicant must have the skill to streamline and modernize the goals and objectives of city departments, and reduce current bureaucratic processes. Applicant must be charismatic, and be able to inspire and lead through adversity. ... Campaign will be well funded by concerned citizens with passion for the city, and who will help on a continuing basis.

No one good answered the ad, Moore says. But he fit the job description.

So Moore explored running for mayor. He was willing to move from Cleveland Heights to University Circle. He was ready to spend $1 million of his own money and raise $2 million more. He went to two-dozen meetings in Cleveland neighborhoods to hear what residents wanted from City Hall. Since he's a Democrat, unlike most of his CEO friends, he figured he had a shot.

But when he hired a pollster, the results discouraged him. Only one in six Clevelanders knew his name. After voters heard push-polling questions that tested possible campaign themes and raved about Moore's business success, the poll showed Clevelanders preferred him to Mayor Jane Campbell, but he'd narrowly lose to city council president Frank Jackson. The pollster put Moore's chances of winning at 40 percent. He didn't like the odds.

So he made a backup plan. While Mixon and some of Moore's other businessman buddies have endorsed ex-safety director Jim Draper's campaign for mayor, Moore didn't join them. His plans are far more ambitious: He wants to shape the debate in the mayor's race. He formed a new organization, Action Cleveland, to come up with solutions to Cleveland's problems.

He started with six big problems residents mentioned at those neighborhood meetings — jobs, education, safety, decay, inefficient government and the city's addiction to "silver bullets" (big downtown projects sold as magic weapons to defeat the first five problems). Moore convened panels of experts to propose solutions. Now he's asking the mayoral candidates to endorse or alter the proposals.

Action Cleveland will "demand that the upcoming mayoral campaign [be] based on issues and real solutions," he tells the crowd at his new group's public forum in June.

Moore's gotten the candidates' attention. Campbell is in the crowd, as are Jackson, Draper and ex-councilman Bill Patmon. (All the candidates have been to see him privately too, he says.)

"I've heard Cleveland described as the hole in the doughnut," he tells the crowd. "I couldn't disagree more. Cleveland is the crown jewel of this region." He notes the fears that the city will keep declining, but adds, "Every single one of us loves Cleveland too much to let that happen."

Moore, a professor, a labor leader and other entrepreneurs use a panel discussion on jobs to attack one of the biggest maxims in Cleveland's current conventional wisdom: The city needs to turn away from manufacturing and toward high-tech jobs. Actually, Cleveland is a perfect location for manufacturing, the panelists insist, and manufacturing jobs, which pay an average of $11 an hour here, are better suited for the city's tens of thousands of unskilled, unemployed workers.

But now, Moore says, moving a company to Cleveland takes too long. So, the panelists say, City Hall has to borrow an idea from other cities: form rapid-response teams to help businesses find land and make deals. "I think the key is speed," Moore says. "Speed and focus."

Moore and his panelists want businesspeople and private experts to join new advisory committees to help the mayor with the six Action Cleveland issues. They want the city's economic development department and the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority board run by businesspeople who've created jobs. They also want to give Cleveland school principals more power, including more authority to expel troublemakers. They want to reduce the size of city council from 21 members to 11 (an idea, Moore's poll shows, that has 2-to-1 support among city voters). Action Cleveland also wants to scale back the size of a new convention center and only support a casino in Cleveland if it has little competition elsewhere in Ohio.

Moore speculated in a July Plain Dealer story that he and friends could spend up to $1 million on ads telling voters where the candidates stood on the Action Cleveland issues. (He even compared the idea to the "Swift Boat" ads that helped sink John Kerry's presidential campaign.)

The comments sounded bullying, distracted people from the issues and shifted attention to Moore's wealth. Given the anti-business, anti-suburban, class-envy streak in Cleveland politics, it opened him up for attack.

Moore's approach "smacks of colonialism, where people try to manage the city's affairs from a comfortable distance," wrote Plain Dealer columnist Sam Fulwood. If Moore really cares about Cleveland, he should move into the city, added Fulwood, who lives in Shaker Heights.

Moore quickly retreated from his "offhanded" remarks, saying he'd rather "create a friendly, productive dialogue."

"We're not threatening anyone, we're not going to do a •Swift Boat' thing, but I think it's important to publicize what people think," he says. "I would never think of spending $1 million, but you can spend a lot of money explaining where candidates come out on things."

Action Cleveland's ideas aren't exactly exciting or headline-grabbing, but Moore is convinced that Cleveland will prosper if innovation becomes a habit in City Hall, like it is in Moore's companies.

In early June, Moore talks about his success to about 40 manufacturers and Cleveland council president Jackson at the Winking Lizard in Lakewood. He's there to debunk the myth that innovation — and the money to fund it — doesn't exist in Cleveland. "I've never seen a good deal that didn't get financed, [though] it may take awhile," he says.

He shows off two of his company's inventions: a super-lightweight car panel that, when he drops it, practically floats to the floor, and a military helmet he passes around the room with cushions that feel snug on your head but stiffen when hit.

"Allocate time to make innovation your job," Moore advises. Make sure everyone from top to bottom is committed to change. Spend at least 15 minutes at every meeting talking about innovation. "If you have a meeting and you don't talk about what's new, you've failed." If you're not confident your company can innovate, say you are anyway. Listen to ideas from everyone, no matter what their education or their rank in the company. Measure success by the number of new ideas per employee.

"There can't be one person not thinking about what's new."

Where some see ruins, Moore sees a chance for rebirth. He unlocks the door to a huge old factory in Collinwood and we step inside. The dimly lit building looks big enough to be an airplane hangar: 400,000 square feet. A defense plant during World War II, it's been empty for more than 20 years.

Moore wants to fill it again. He's renting part of it, trying to buy it. Two smaller buildings on this big stretch of industrial land, a former airport, already house businesses of his. We walk past the equipment used to mow the massive lawn outside and, after a long walk, come to two decrepit, very old cars.

"This is my '32 Ford hot rod," Moore says, pointing to the more intact one. "We all have certain weaknesses, right?"

Moore's been fixing up cars like this since he was a teen-ager. But these need a lot of work. The manifolds (the pipes running outside the body) and the finely wrought door handles look exotic, but clearly the car hasn't driven anywhere in a long time. The second car, a '32 hot rod coupe, looks even further gone, missing an engine, one window blotted out by a spidery crack.

Moore's been getting around in style for years. He's loved motorcycles since he was old enough to drive. He owns four: a yellow BMW, a Kawasaki Ninja canyon bike and two vintage Triumphs. Once, he rode the BMW from Montana to Alaska, then camped near the Alaska Pipeline. He keeps a boat in the Caribbean, island hopping from Tortola to Trinidad. He flew south this June to pilot it to safer waters in time for hurricane season.

Friends call Moore fearless. Deciding not to run for mayor was unusually cautious for him. "I think it really excites him when someone tells him [something] can't be done," says daughter Halley.

We walk to the far, far end of the factory. The only sounds are our footsteps and crickets chirping. Moore inspects the boarded-up doorways to the building's offices. Danger signs warning of asbestos ring the wall. He's mad no one gave him keys to the padlocks. The offices are really something to see, he says.

Finally he finds one wooden door-board that's loose, pulls at it and tears it in half, revealing a door with a tall, bashed-out window. We step through.

The air feels stifling and smells thick, dusty, nasty. Moore flicks on his flashlight and leads me through old offices, into a locker room, an infirmary and a storeroom full of employee medical records from the '70s. It all looks fascinating to him, an archeological find. We head to a little auditorium filled with even more fetid air. "There's probably black mold everywhere," he says, with what almost sounds like glee.

Moore wants to make this building into an industrial incubator where new companies can grow. "Our argument about Cleveland is, we should take factories like this that are so good and do something with them," he says. Government entities such as the port authority could buy old factories, rehab them and sell them, like a land bank for buildings.

Out of all the stories about Moore's turnarounds, optimism and ingenuity, one stands out. In 1997, his oldest daughter, Wendy, fell off a huge cliff during a skiing accident in California, suffered a terrible head injury and fell into a coma. After weeks in a hospital in Reno, Nev., and The Cleveland Clinic, two days before she would have turned 30, Wendy died.

Dan didn't just mourn. Even as Wendy lay in the hospital in Reno, he and daughters Heather and Halley started trying to design a helmet that would protect other skiers, as well as bikers, skateboarders and others, from similar injuries.

"As soon as she had the accident," says Halley, "he was already buying ski helmets. Week Two, he was sawing them in half to see how they worked. Here's a problem: a brain injury while skiing. His reaction is not to despair, but to fix it."

That same year, Moore founded Team Wendy LLC and named Halley as CEO. The company started producing helmets with Zorbium, the stiffening foam Moore showed off at his Winking Lizard talk, in 2001. Team Wendy's helmets include real advances in safety, Moore says, but the company had trouble finding a market.

"Innovation is only based on need," he tells the crowd at the Winking Lizard. "I started a helmet company based on a nonbusiness reason and the company didn't do well." Now, it's prospering because it's found a good customer: The U.S. Army is buying thousands of its military helmets.

To commemorate Wendy's career as an artist, Moore and his wife have also started a grant program in her name for female artists under 30 at Cleveland's Museum of Contemporary Art. Recently, Moore arranged for another tribute to her: The county just named the new Whiskey Island park Wendy Park.

Just getting to Whiskey Island is an adventure. You have to take the Shoreway to Edgewater Park, hang a right, cut through a parking lot, drive behind the sewage plant on a narrow road next to barbed-wire fences, cross a one-lane bridge, go past a guardhouse and finally park in a dirt lot. What you find is a shabby-pretty paradise: hundreds of boats, a laid-back bar in a shack, woods, volleyball courts and rocky shores. It's easy to see why Moore, the city and the county all want a park located here: Whiskey Island is one of the few places Clevelanders can walk right to the lake. Thanks to quirks of geography, it's close to the Flats and downtown, yet remote and unspoiled.

Moore and a few partners owned 30 acres on Whiskey Island for 11 years. He built the 500-boat marina here as a tribute to his late nephew, George Clements, who came up with the idea. Clements, who was president of one of Moore's companies and was like a son to him, died in an industrial accident in one of Moore's factories in 1988.

But Moore couldn't find enough customers to make the marina as big as he wanted, and a plan to set up a riverboat casino off Whiskey Island was rejected by Ohio voters in 1996. After entertaining some proposals for industrial developments, Moore decided he wanted the land preserved as a park.

So Moore talked to the Campbell Administration about selling his land. But the cash-poor city needed the port authority's help to buy it, and the port wanted to fill in the marina and use it for maritime operations. The city and port also wanted Moore to improve the land and pay the debts attached to it before they bought it.

Moore didn't want to see the marina go, and he wanted to sell the land as is. So when two county commissioners signaled they'd give Moore the deal he wanted, he turned to the county instead — and the port sued to seize the land by eminent domain.

"Depending on who you talk to, [they] could either make [Moore] sound like a villain or a legend of our community," says city councilman Matt Zone, whose ward includes Whiskey Island. "The guy wants to make our city and region prosper, but at the same time, at times he was kind of stubborn. And people at times viewed him as an impediment to seeing Whiskey Island grow and thrive."

Why didn't Moore ever replace the one-lane bridge to Whiskey Island with a safer one, as the deed to the land requires? Moore's critics might ask. Why did he let huge tax debts build up on the land? Why did he wait to clean the land until the county paid him to do it?

Moore's supporters (who'd insist no one's done more than him to preserve Whiskey Island) would reply that Moore couldn't keep pouring money into the land, because he'd already lost millions on it — $6 million, he says. The partnership's complex financing structure handcuffed him from paying the taxes, he adds.

The Whiskey Island war may have even cost one county commissioner his job. Tim McCormick lost in the March 2004 primary to Tim Hagan, who promised to get along better with other governments. McCormick says Whiskey Island was a "huge" reason he was unseated and that port authority lawyers and officials helped raise funds for Hagan's campaign.

Just before McCormick left office in December, the county bought Moore's 30 acres for $6.25 million. (Moore paid the $1.3 million in taxes and other debts when the sale went through.) The land war ended in mid-July, when the port dropped its attempt to seize Whiskey Island. (The new county commission majority had considered selling it to the port — but the deal fell through because the port and city were fighting over which of them would replace that one-lane bridge.)

It was a huge victory for Moore and his supporters, who insisted the port's plan to fill in the marina would ruin Whiskey Island. "You can't have gravel next to a park," Moore says, referring to the gravel mounds the port might move from the Cuyahoga's banks. "You'd have a big fence, big piles, dust blowing all the time."

And clearly, the land would be less peaceful and quiet if port operations replaced the marina. On the other hand, the city, like the county, has pledged to preserve its eastern 20 acres as a park.

Has Moore been stubborn over Whiskey Island? Perhaps. Compromise can be hard when you've worked for yourself almost all your life. Especially when you're asked to compromise something that arouses such passion in you.

"He gets choked up just talking about it," says Halley Moore. "He's really believed in this piece of land for a really long time." Moore wants to give Clevelanders another place they can access the lake, his daughter says. Plus, Whiskey Island was special to Wendy before she died. She used to go there to take photographs for an art project she never finished.

"This space has been resurrected," Halley says, "and the act of naming something after someone who's dead is sort of a way of breathing life into her memory."

On June 25, a cloudless 90-degree day, friends of the Moores and fans of Whiskey Island gather on the grassy shore near the marina to dedicate Wendy Park. They eat lunch, visit a petting zoo set up for the occasion and listen to a Celtic band.

Around one o'clock, Moore takes the stage, wearing a short-sleeved shirt, yellow shorts and a Team Wendy hat. He tells one more adventure story: how he, George Crile and their nephews biked the Metroparks' whole Emerald Necklace the day before, then camped overnight on Whiskey Island. "It was absolutely spectacular," he tells the crowd. He looks out at the picnickers, the volleyball courts, the lake, the Coast Guard station, the grove of trees hiding the Cleveland skyline.

"There will never be a location for a park as good as this, ever," he says.

He tries to talk about Wendy, but starts to cry, so the crowd cheers to fill the silence. After a few more speeches, the family heads over to the giant sign for Wendy Park, made of breakwall granite from the old landfill and hot-rolled steel, and christens it with beer and champagne.

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