NEOExcellence Roundtable 9/6: An Inside View of Economic Development

Submitted by Sudhir Kade on Thu, 09/08/2005 - 13:06.

City of Cleveland Chief of Staff Chris Ronayne spoke at the latest NeoExcellence Roundtable, held at the City Club of Cleveland, delivering an excellent overview of the issues faced by a City working to facilitate economic development.

Ronayne started with mention of a significant project with New Orleans working to help the city find footing in the devastating wake of Hurricane Katrina. The latest news issued was that Cleveland would accept 400 evacuees Thursday and create an assistance network for the plagued city.

Ronayne moved on by recounting his long standing history with Cleveland, sharing the tale of his first job in the city – selling ice cream sandwiches as a teenager at the corner of East 9th and Euclid. Having observed the transformation of the city from a time of booming industry with throngs of people downtown to a city facing a difficult urban sprawl problem and flat population growth (Only two states have lower population growth than Ohio – and Cleveland now has less than 485,000 residents), Ronayne is now committed to the sustainable economic development of the city and surrounding region. Lately conversation in city hall has revolved around creating a national urban strategy involving metropolitan placemaking, regional economic development, and the resolution of urban sprawl.

Ronayne was critical of the lack of activity toward preservation of the urban form –stressing that the sprawl situation might be acceptable in high-growth cities but certainly not here. He stressed the need to look at comparable prosperous cities like Atlanta, Milwaukee, and Portland and the way they have capitalized on asset base. Cleveland too has a significant asset base of great cultural centers – museums, orchestra, and theaters- and can be great as any midsized city in America. Ronayne shared a vision for a cosmopolitan multinational dynamic and is heartened by a new and growing vision for positive change in the region. He pointed to the thriving warehouse district as a truly successful downtown neighborhood and shared plans to foster connectedness with a quality waterfront via new development. Remedial action planning has helped and many await the Flats East Bank revitalization project and plans to create an amplified and transformed Rock and Roll Boulevard (9th street) that would give Cleveland true identity.

Chris also emphasized the great opportunity represented by housing vacancy in the city – which is predicted to be filled in to the tune of 20,000 people downtown by 2020, and also shared a CSU survey in which over 10,000 people voiced a desire to live downtown with a waterfront view. Housing starts downtown are starting to grow and the momentum needs to continue.

Shifting the conversation to industry, Ronayne spoke of the great opportunity for innovation – with 2 million square feet of laboratory space at East 105 and Euclid. Opportunities in medical technology and medical device-making offer real job prospects for urban residents. Chris strongly believes that competencies in instrument making and polymers still make Cleveland a viable manufacturing community.

He acknowledged the brain drain issue and emphasized the importance of civic groups and NGOs like Say Yes to Cleveland which work to foster entrepreneurship and new venture creation. Family connections are a critical factor – and the great cost of living and cultural asset base can be marketed better to woo back expatriates and retain talent.

Part of the problem is a learned helplessness - Clevelanders have been downtrodden and ambivalent – Ronayne underscored that we are a great sports and leisure town – but we need to stand tall ‘irrespective of box scores’.

A great cause for hope is the numerous (totaling $3 Billion) development projects planned for the city – including: warehouse development for Sysco Foods (50M) , the Euclid Corridor Project (216M), Flat East Bank Neighborhood (225M), and Cleveland Museum of Art (258M). A future project looming large is The Lakefront Plan: which has already raised $75M and should go a long way to beautifying our waterfront.

A key strength for Cleveland identified by Ronayne is an advanced IT infrastructure – we should be proud of our ultra broadband wireless as something great to build businesses off of and e-government applications allow access to building permits on line, more efficient use of taxpayer dollars and new paperless processes. There is still much room for growth in technology, Ronayne added – one major need is a business to business interface and increased capacity due to broadband wireless.

Another success on the part of Cleveland has been resolving debt – after resolving $65 million in debt load both Detroit and Pittsburgh came to Cleveland to learn how to become fiscally solvent. Technology has been a key - when Campbell took office city hall only had 300 internet users – now, everyone who needs Internet and email has that, and this has been leveraged into applications improving government processes. Intel branded Cleveland as one of 3 great digital cities of the world and this bodes well for her future.

Ronayne also addressed regional capacity – he is NOT hostile toward regionalization at all –and is willing to look at regionalization of certain processes: i.e. Digital City – Convention Center Financing, building an incredible net of regional economic development sources.

Addressing a recent failure – the loss of Office Max to Chicago – Ronayne stressed the positive implications of dialogue created between Cleveland and Shaker Heights about a tax base shared income tax that could become a model for future projects.

Opening up the Q and A session, Norm Roulet prompted those in attendance to reflect and comment on Ronayne's presentation:

David Moss of the Cleveland Institute of Art shared that people are not 'close enough to the fire' – that it is amazing seeing the change framework but the message is still not going out to Beachwood and other suburbs around Cleveland.

John McGovern, of the Levin School shared that many of us are fighting the sustainability fight, and as an avid cyclist, he wondered why bike lanes have not been developed in the City.

In response, Ronayne pointed out the Ohio Department of Transportation (ODOT) as a key obstacle and that the community needs input to the engineer's lexicon : As former City Planner Ronayne specified that ODOT is the most powerful agent when it comes to these issues - even more so than ODOD or the State of Ohio. Dog fighting between city and state entities has been another problem area keeping a progressive implementation like a bike lane system from happening. Ronayne indicated that Mayor Campbell’s insistence on bike racks in every garage and in city hall is a good start to build upon.

Ed Hauser of Friends of Whiskey Island sparked dialogue about our waterways. Whiskey Island, he said, is central to all these initiatives new collaboration is encouraging and considering Whiskey Island to be a Metropark. Ronayne voiced deep appreciation for Hauser's efforts which created a lot of regional dialogue and 'got special attention to a special place'. He voiced a need to manage a successful comprehensive waterfront all the way across, and stressed that advocating regional authority that will make waterfronts mostly public space is key. In other words, these projects should NOT build 'right up to the edge'. Ronayne felt the Metroparks could do this if they can see revenue streams – they need an increment of new revenue – to either siphon off state budget or get a new environmental levy passed.

As for an incremental new tax for waterfront development, Ronayne indicated that Whiskey Island and Dike 14 could be novel points to campaign around. Stewardship could be facilitated by engaging community groups and corporate entities to participate along with concerned citizens in volunteer days that expose Whiskey Island to people while effecting major cleanup and renovation of the Coast Guard Station and other areas. Already Loews and the Cleveland 20/30 club have expressed support for such an initiative. Ronayne pointed out that completing the 'emerald necklace' of Cleveland Metroparks could create greater uniformity and public accessibility and become a driver for economic development.

Ronayne also addressed the education problem – issues like urban sprawl, income-out migration, poverty and lack of racial integration were identified as key contributors to the problem. However, metrics like attendance and suspensions have shown incremental improvements across the board: Ronayne urged experimentation with as much innovation as possible in the public schools – to consider district sponsored charter schools within the bureaucracy: He pointed to Toledo as a great example such efforts. Another key is getting parents into education so they can help – English as a Second Language (ESL programming), corporate sponsorship, and so forth. NGOs are doing a great deal to bridge these gaps: creating a 24/7 learning process and they need to be supported and coordinated. Regionalism really works best when the region is focused on benefiting underprivileged communities. Also, the State is not dealing properly in urban innovation – most indicators agree that smaller is better - but the State has not coordinated well with Cleveland on strategy.

Commenting further on urban form, Ronayne indicated that from a planning standpoint, the best new paradigm has emerged at the neighborhood level – with successful developments on the part of the Community Development Corporations (CDCs). Ronayne's vision fits well with the TND vision long supported by REALNEO: a vision of a pedestrian-friendly neighborhood with most necessities within a five-minute walk, and vibrant town commercial centers. It will take much effort, and perhaps the coordinated effort on the part of the many CDC's in town – to make this vision a reality.

A key voice from the arts community was raised by Bernadette Gilotta, a local independent filmmaker, when she addressed the importance of thinking small- so many times when the development of arts and culture is addressed we point to large cultural assets like the museum, orchestra and playhouses – but seem to neglect the smaller guys – the independent filmmakers, and individual artists. There are efforts to teach filmmaking to students – but there also needs to be support for the older folks who are getting fed up and are ready to move on– their stories need to be clearly communicated.

Documentary Filmmaker Robert Banks added comments regarding the recent Ingenuity Festival here in Cleveland- an event that should have drawn 80,000 people or more, but clearly did not.. It was a start – and did, perhaps establish a footprint. Still, more will have to be done next year to truly make the vision of an integrated community surrounding and appreciating the creative intersection of art and technology a vibrant reality.

Chris Ronayne wrapped up the Q and A portion of the roundtable session by commenting on the role of city administration as a facilitator of positive change. He stressed that the city administration needs to keep the balance- and help facilitate a city of choice that supports a culture of innovation and moves people downtown. Cleveland will not be exactly what it was in 1950, but the city is trying to create a competitive choice for many, many people. The city government cannot and will not do all of this – but it will provide an increment of help to those making change and work to facilitate progress.

Closing comments were then added by REALinks/REALNEO founders Norm Roulet and Peter Holmes. Norm effectively illustrated the value in facilitating connections with technology and the great value in creation of a community development venture capital fund that could invest in meaningful civic change and development efforts. Peter elegantly wrapped up the roundtable session by sharing that it comes down to effective participation – identifying the technologies that can appreciate all relevant intellectual property and enabling people to participate in wealth creation. He also underscored the power and value of stories – that stories make the process understandable and meaningful for the individual. In recognition of this, he added, REALinks / REALNEO will continue to translate the dialogues from the NEOExcellence roundtable programs into stories that make the IP valuable and useful for all and drive positive outcomes for our region.

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