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The Job Machine 

Global Cleveland wants to put the region to work. Who gets the jobs isn't clear

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The plug in the dike comes on May 24. For years it seemed it wouldn't come at all.

In the wake of decades of population and employment erosion, next week marks the formal launch of the International Welcome Center on Public Square. It's championed as a sort of recruiting department spawned by Global Cleveland, the newly formed organization that is more than a decade in the planning.

The group hopes to stem the tide of Cleveland's outward migration, while courting newcomers who can fill vacant jobs — or create new ones for thousands of unemployed locals.

At the heart of Global Cleveland's courtship is a glut of more than 20,000 jobs currently available in the region, a figure the group cites using the state-run employment website ohiomeansjobs.com.

"The principal goal is to attract population to Cleveland," says Baiju Shah, Global Cleveland's recently appointed chairman. "We want to attract 200,000 people over 20 years."

But as Global Cleveland prepares to celebrate its launch next week — with a public party at City Hall, followed by a community "summit" at Cleveland State University — questions exist whether the group's model for job stimulation overlooks the countless unemployed who already live here. Instead of lifting locals out of their malaise, the group is dedicated at least in part to ushering in foreign guest workers on a little-known visa called the H-1B. Critics say such workers often are sought by employers at lower wages, and in some regions have taken jobs from their American counterparts.

In the land where good jobs go to die, more competition is on the way.

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The idea that has grown into Global Cleveland — often referred to in the recent past as the "Immigration Welcome Center" — has been incubating for years. But initially it was just a concept shared among a handful of lawyers and business and civic leaders.

One of those early players was Cleveland attorney Richard Herman, who has been extraordinary in his commitment to helping immigrants make Cleveland home. He has provided immigration counsel to the Cavaliers and Browns, among other NFL franchises, and his life's work has been honored by former Governor Bob Taft and former mayors Jane Campbell and Michael White.

"Whatever we have been doing for the last 40 years is not working," says Herman. "We need to change ourselves to the immigrant mindset: be more innovative, family-centric, self-reliant, pro-education. In the past, if an immigrant couldn't find a job, they made one." Indeed, such tales of bootstrap determination create the narrative arc of Cleveland's own history.

Herman has also played a key role in the emergence of Global Cleveland. According to several backers who have worked behind the scenes from the start, the group never would have happened "if not for Richard ... the Lionhearted."

But for all the years of debate over how best to bring talent to Cleveland, plans for a Welcome Center came to fruition no earlier than December of last year. The goal was to offer guidance to those considering a new life here, to extend the first roots of a support system that could better connect them to the community — to social groups and churches, to housing and, of course, to employment.

More specifically, the group aimed to recruit highly skilled talent to town by working closely with the region's ethnic communities, developing internship programs, and marketing the city to minority populations elsewhere.

In early April, Global Cleveland revealed that it had found a home on the ground floor of the BP Building. Even more important: It had secured a handful of influential backers, providing the juice that well-meaning community servants alone could not. Huntington Bank stepped forward with $500,000, along with smaller but substantial gifts from Forest City Enterprises, the Cleveland Foundation, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland, and others.

The news was feted with a press conference at Global Cleveland's future headquarters, attended by a civic all-star team: Mayor Frank Jackson, County Executive Ed FitzGerald, City Council President Martin Sweeney, and Forest City boss Albert Ratner among them. Looking on were dozens of behind-the-scenes players who helped usher the program into existence.

"Maybe English isn't the first language of the people coming here, but after today, 'Cleveland' will be," said Councilman Joe Cimperman, the son of a Slovenian immigrant.

Among the cavalcade of speakers, FitzGerald was the lone voice to acknowledge the common controversy that accompanies efforts to court immigrants in other regions, mostly involving the perceived threat to the resident workforce. For years, opposition to Global Cleveland from City Hall and minority groups had centered on the argument that the region should take care of its own before casting an international net.

FitzGerald conceded that the course of Global Cleveland is riddled with uncertainty, but that pursuing immigrants is the "morally" right thing to do. (FitzGerald and Mayor Jackson did not respond to interview requests for this story.)

"The area had to make a decision as to which stream it was going to follow," FitzGerald said.

Where that current will take us, it's too early to tell.

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More by John Lasker

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