6 Questions Every Cuyahoga County Policymaker Should Ask?
6 Questions Every Cuyahoga County Policymaker Should Ask?

These are not necessarily the only questions one in a position of power should take into consideration. Concerns about morality and common sense must always be in the foreground of thinking for those involved in our region’s economic development and community building. But, given the current state of the county and region, it’s perhaps best if those who are voting on funds, designing projects, and formulating policies stop some point along the way and ask him/herself the following:

1.) What will be the impact of this policy in 25 years?
In short, how will this impact the lives of your children and grandchildren for the better?

For contextual purposes, let’s take a look at the Opportunity Corridor to shine light on this question. The massive undertaking has been going on for years now, with at least two more to follow. What are some of the initial results? Well, the tremendously successful and well-respected Bruder Inc., a staple in the Woodland Avenue area dating to at least the 1940s, was forced to move to a suburban location in Maple Heights.

The now $331 million dollar price tag for the corridor should alone get your attention immediately. And, what are we being promised as a result? Greater access to the east side, specifically places like University Circle and the Cleveland Clinic, and jobs. This is what we’ve been told. I personally attended a talk by the city’s Planning Director in which he was given 15 minutes to explain the Opportunity Corridor, took 55 minutes instead, and was still unable to articulate to the audience how it will generate well-paying/family wage jobs. Nor did anyone leave feeling the corridor was necessary in an of itself. To say nothing about the incredible inconvenience it has caused thousands of us, all while our city’s other streets often necessitate an off-road vehicle to navigate.  

The promise of more, and higher-paying, jobs the powers that be are telling us will come due to this project seems unlikely. Too many Cleveland-area residents are under-educated for the skills needed in today’s job market. And that’s a failure of our elected and un-elected leaders. Their fear of rocking the proverbial status quo boat has ensured this.

My biggest fear isn’t just that the panacea we’ve been promised won’t materialize. But even worse, in a few years the corridor will be littered by the type of undesirable businesses already flourishing in parts of the city: check cashing schemes, fast food restaurants, and the type of convenience stores whose owners institute poor-taxes on their customers with fees for anyone using a plastic card, or by selling cigarettes at the exorbitant rate of 50 cents apiece (which by the way is completely illegal yet continues unabated).

2.) Who benefits the most from this and who is excluded?

Perhaps the most enlightening examples of this question involve two recent—incredibly expensive—projects taking place practically a few feet away from one another. The so-called Q deal (was the renaming of the Cavaliers’ home just a naked attempt to gain more money, or a re-branding to avoid the association between the Q and millions of taxpayer dollars?) involves millions (up to $40 mil) of Cuyahoga County dollars for upgrades to the arena. And, thanks to an all-too-common ability to adopt forward thinking, the lease between the Cavaliers and Gilbert for the arena is so unfavorable to the city/county that few other cities could match it.

If your argument in favor of funding the Q/Rocket Mortgage is that if we don’t they’ll leave, well the best way to avoid that is by increasing our population. Because I assure you, if Cuyahoga County continues to hemorrhage population, our professional sports teams will leave. But the words “population increase” rarely escape the lips of our elected officials and policymakers, much less has a coherent plan for doing so emerged.

Meanwhile, the proposed NuCLEus building that’s set to go up across the street from the Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse should have residents’ skepticism antenna all the way up.  

On the surface of it I am in favor of less parking lots downtown. The area near West 6th Street, northwest of Public Square, is the most obvious example of wasted space downtown. And the area between Huron and Prospect by East 4th would be undeniably improved by this building.

Yet, not only should we be asking ourselves how long it’s going to take until the building(s) are complete, but how long will it take for Cleveland and the county–who are chipping in $12 million and $6 million respectively–to reap economic benefits from their investment. The city is trying to tell us that their $12 mil is a loan. Yet, the questionable financing is really a “self-generating” subsidy that won’t pay back the city’s investment, but simply “guarantees” the recouping of the money in taxes generated over 20 years from employees in the building and from the parking spaces. Taxes that would’ve already been due to the city by the way.

Of course the fact that the NuCLEus’ flagship tenant, Benesch Law, is already headquartered downtown, a couple thousand feet away in the Huntington building, doesn’t change the income tax situation at all. They’re already headquartered downtown! And, so little has been released about the potential other tenants that one would be naive to simply accept Stark Enterprises’ promises of future glory.

So, who benefits the most from these deals? One would be hard-pressed to find anyone who could say the vast majority of the benefits won’t be reaped by Dan Gilbert and the Stark family. With a lead crisis that’s reaching frightening proportions in terms of its public harm and the inability to resolve it, along with a central city where half of all children live in poverty, (just 2 of the most obvious crises we are facing) one must prioritize and wonder if helping to foot the bill for billionaires is the best use of our money or energy.

3.) How does this improve the region as a whole?

In order for Cleveland to thrive, economic development and progress can’t be limited only to certain areas.

In Milwaukee, the Milwaukee 7 or M7, is a long-term economic development strategy between seven neighboring counties. These counties even went so far as to sign a code of ethics that prohibits the participants from pilfering jobs or businesses from other jurisdictions. Not only do they recognize the need for a regional strategy, something groups like the Fund for our Economic Future and a few others here are now actively promoting, but they also recognize the harmfulness of direct competition. When the overarching goal must be long-term regional growth, poaching just doesn’t benefit anybody and especially not individual residents.

With a particular emphasis on creating advanced manufacturing jobs, recycling former industrial sites for new uses, and most importantly, creating family wage jobs (defined as approx. $22/hour) and connecting residents in the 7-county area to those jobs, the M7 is just one template Cleveland and our region can look at for inspiration.

4.) Will this actually work as its proponents describe?

Cleveland has a long history of PR campaigns. So much so that sloganeering has often been employed as a growth policy itself. If you can, look at Believing in Cleveland, by Cleveland State historian J. Mark Souther. Does anybody remember Erieview? Or did you know Cleveland was once a plum? Souther’s research depicts the burgeoning divide that cropped after World War II between downtown business interests and neighborhood residents, as well as the city-suburban divide that slowly but definitively escalated in those decades. His work should serve as a wake up call to anyone who thinks intra-regional and intra-county squabbles are new, or that they’ll be fixed over night. Or, quite frankly, that they’ll be fixed if we continue to elect the same people ad nauseum. Souther especially excels in a fascinating final chapter on the use of sloganeering as policy.

I love Cleveland, I think that goes without saying. But, needless championing of Cleveland and the region, along with the get-along, go-along strategy that our policymakers too often rely upon, works to obscure some of the fundamental problems we must surmount and worse, the critical viewpoints it will take to improve the region’s socioeconomic life.

5.) Has this process been transparent and inclusive?

It is essential that elected officials, city planners, economic development officers, and most definitely building developers, improve at asking themselves this question: Were all groups who could be impacted, especially residents, consulted on the upcoming project?  A recent Crain’s article highlighted community-led objections to impending development projects in places like Lakewood and Hudson. There’s little argument that development is necessary, to keep people from moving further away from the central city, and to attract new residents. So, we cannot close our eyes to development, nor should we be afraid of change. But, were the people in Lakewood and Hudson for example, fully integrated into the decision-making of these recent projects?

In Lakewood, attempts are underway to replace car dealerships along Detroit Avenue with, amongst other things, new apartments. First off, did the people in charge of approving the development ask themselves if Lakewood needs more apartments? Second, were the residents who live nearby (and in the densely-populated Lakewood residents live nearby just about everything) consulted? According to Crain’s the answer to that question is no. Indeed, they spoke to local musical legend, and true county treasure, Colin Dussault, who made it quite clear that neither he nor his neighbors, whose homes abut the planned 5000 square feet of commercial development set to be built, were genuinely listened to by decision-makers.

Though few projects we’ll be embraced by every resident or stakeholder, the people who live in our communities must be consulted. And, elected officials and policymakers need to exert more effort to reach out to residents. Which by the way, is why we need to elect people like Laura Rodriguez-Carbone to Lakewood City Council.

6.) Is this a new idea/way of thinking?

Just because something is new does not mean it’s beneficial. In the same way that building something big doesn’t inherently make it positive. I’m not saying it has to be new, but it’s a good question to ask. If we continue with the circular way of thinking that has dominated our area for decades, where for example building something is in and of itself is called a victory, why would we think anything different is going to happen? If Albert Einstein was right, and the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results, what makes us in Cuyahoga County think things are going to be different if we follow the same path we’ve been on for half a century?

Notice that none of these questions involve, on the face of them, ideological tests. While I am a progressive, and believe progressive policies by and large work best, I don’t believe we can get out of the decades-long rut we’ve been in by holding an ideological mirror up to each idea or policy. But, by asking ourselves questions like these six, we can begin to contemplate long-term growth in a different manner that will benefit ALL county and regional residents.

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