Unevenly Spread: What Neighborhood Development Really Means in Cleveland and the Challenges Facing CDCs on the Near East and West Sides 

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That bit of news helps characterize the gap in development between neighborhoods on the city's near west and near east sides. Ohio City has reached a point where residents can successfully thwart one of the biggest corporate entities in the country basically because McDonald's doesn't jibe with with their aesthetic.  

"It's not Ohio-City-istic," Councilman Joe Cimperman told Scene during the ongoing debate.

Meanwhile, the residents of Central and Kinsman — many of whom live in public housing and travel by foot and transit — couldn't buy a carrot before CornUcopia and Bridgeport were built, without hitching a ride to Dave's Market on E. 40th.

Neighborhoods like Ohio City, Tremont and Detroit-Shoreway are currently focused on things like real estate upgrades, attracting small-businesses that fit into the community's overall vision and vibe, and tactfully negotiating demographic shifts caused by the demand for rental properties. Neighborhoods like Kinsman and Central and Fairfax and Hough deal much more pressingly with recapitulating vacant homes, the lingering aftershock of the foreclosure crisis, social services and safety.

These are broad strokes, naturally, and aren't meant to validate or invalidate the organizations' work — these are all good people — but in CDC terms: Where the West Side neighborhoods have the opportunity for or luxury of development, the East side neighborhoods have the responsibility and hardship of recovery.

Eric Wobser, Ohio City Inc.'s Executive Director, knows that different neighborhoods occupy different spaces along a development trajectory and "tools that may work in Ohio City [for instance] may not be the best prescription for other community development corporations."

That's an important point, and critical to acknowledge that natural assets, prime locations, and functional housing stock gives some communities the developmental leg up.

Not that it's a competition.

No one enjoys watching Cleveland's urban neighborhoods struggle; likewise, no one enjoys watching certain neighborhoods succeed at others' expense. But as Tim Tramble articulated above, the financial resources aren't unlimited. As it turns out, they're getting scarcer.

Funding for CDCs generally come from city council members' discretionary budgets, a Cleveland community development block grant (Federal moolah), operating support from Neighborhood Progress Inc., and other grants, donations and member fees.

The federal moolah ebbs and flows — and lately ebbs — and when the pot shrinks, Cleveland's share of the pot shrinks. Cleveland's share would be shrinking anyway because the allocation is linked to population size. If you've seen the latest census numbers, you know that the city is shrinking.

Which means, too, that the city council has shrunk. The city's legislative body is now only 17-members strong (two fewer than last year) — and that's two fewer pockets to solicit for neighborhood projects.

Add to this equation the fact that Neighborhood Progress only provides financial operating support to nine CDCs every year out of 27 total organizations, and you can see why some CDCs and city councilmen — Jeff Johnson and Zack Reed, among others — have voiced the opinion that the city has created winners and losers in the neighborhood development game.

Eric Wobser, in a phone interview, says that there's certainly tension on both sides. "But I consider that tension a sign of healthy dialogue," he says.     

Colleen Gilson sees potential for collaboration and, ultimately, mergers with many of the city's CDCs to accelerate the recovery process. She thinks mergers will enhance neighborhoods' capacity to attract national funding dollars and take advantage of sibling organizations' expertise.  

"Getting a little more juice," is how Gilson describes it, and that seems apt.

Neighborhood Progress itself is the product of a merger this summer which united the former NPI with the Cleveland Neighborhood Development Coalition and LiveCLEVELAND. The new umbrella organization, still called Neighborhood Progress, has streamlined the way it provides services and technical assistance to communities, cut costs, and retained all 25 employees from its contingent trinity.

NPI's important because it's the only "funding intermediary" in the region. Helmed by Joel Ratner, NPI works with the major foundations and local government to locate (and then optimally allocate) development dollars.  They also provide training and consulting for neighborhood groups, advocate for CDCs policy-wise, and in general provide the best-practices wherewithal for operations and strategy. Gilson and her colleagues belong to a field and an organization where the words "right size" and "vision" are regularly used as gerunds, to give you an idea.   

Gilson was the Executive Director at the Cleveland Neighborhood Development Coalition, and now that she's survived the merger, she feels better about recommending its merits to neighborhood groups. One of the central reasons NPI sees merging, or "fostering unique partnerships," as valuable is the increased effectiveness when tapping into city dollars.

City Council distributes about $8 million per annum from the Federal Block Grant. Gilson hesitates to criticize the way that money is disbursed now, but says NPI can do a much better job directing those funds if they're representing fewer organizations.

"We will be more helpful to any administration or to city council. We can say, 'Here are the plans that have been developed with neighborhood consensus. This is where resources have to go."

As it stands, it's like the old adage of peanut butter spread over too much bread.

"It's spread so thin that pretty soon, you don't get a tasty sandwich," Gilson says. "Or you get a splotch of bread with no peanut butter on it at all."  

To put the money in perspective, Ohio City Inc.'s project budget for 2014 is $1.524 million. (Eric Wobser was totally transparent and helpful with questions about his organization's finances).  The city's total contribution is $310,000.

OCI just received a $45,000 grant from Neighborhood Progress to expand its youth recreation programming in conjunction with Tremont, Detroit-Shoreway, Stockyards, Clark-Fulton, and Brooklyn Center. Wobser considers getting the rec league off the ground one of 2014's flagship initiatives. This is a conscious effort by Wobser and Co. to respond to residents' requests for family programming, to fight the stigma that they're only developing for young professionals.

BBC's annual expenses are similar. In 2012, for example, their total expenditures were $1.35 million. And it's not like these particular directors are exorbitantly paid. Both Wobser and Tramble make about $85,000 for their efforts, a far cry from both Vickie Eaton-Johnson, at Fairfax Renaissance, and Chris Ronayne at University Ciricle Inc., who both pull in salaries in the $180K-range.

OCI and BBC are two of 27 CDCs citywide.  There's a map of all of them in the NPI conference room in their offices on W. 25th Street. On the map's border are multi-colored shapes representing the city's neighborhoods. Though Colleen Gilson has said that merging may be a prudent decision from a financial and operations standpoint, she knows that maintaining individual neighborhoods' identities is paramount.

"That's the beauty of Cleveland," she says. "You've got 34 distinct neighborhoods and in each of those neighborhoods you've got vibrant, funky sub-neighborhoods." She points to the success of Stockyards CDC operating under the administrative parentage of Detroit-Shoreway as a possible model.

On the horizon, Gilson is energized by the conversations happening among Cleveland's Northeast-side councilmen and the potential for an organization spanning St. Clair-Superior, Glenville, and Collinwood. Because of the publicity of those conversations, and the success of the Detroit-Shoreway/Stockyards Union, Gilson has already entertained 3 sections of the city, the CDCs of which have come to her independently to explore the possibilities of merging.

As for the near east side, the biggest challenges through 2014 and beyond, regardless of mergers, will be stabilization, reclamation and the looming specter of the Opportunity Corridor. (That's the $331 million ODOT-financed roadway project connecting 490 to University Circle.)

Tim Tramble's skepticism regarding that project is on record.

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