Med Mart Version 2.0

The original plan isn't going to work. What about the latest one?

It wasn't a tough sell. A medical mart in Cleveland would showcase high-end wares — the latest in medical technology and cutting-edge equipment. When Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove put forth the idea more than a decade ago, he intended a kind of one-stop shop for hospitals and doctors looking to buy. And they would come here from all over the world.

Companies will clamor to rent space in the shadow of Cleveland Clinic, University Hospitals, MetroHealth, and Summa, the logic went. In turn, a sleek new building full of shiny new medical tools will attract medical trade shows in droves to a new, state-of-the-art convention center that replaces the weary, woefully outdated existing one. Hotels will fill to capacity, restaurants will boom, and out-of-towners might even fill the empty seats at Indians and Cavaliers games.

The concept was said to be new and untested, so Cosgrove brought mart experts in to talk about the plan in 2005. Two years later, the Chicago firm Merchandise Mart Properties Inc. — equipped with taxpayer money that would balloon to an eventual sum of $465 million — was eyeing sites, drawing up plans, and negotiating terms with the county. Quick progress was needed too: Nashville and New York were planning med marts of their own, and the pivotal advantage would go to the one that opened first.

The City of Cleveland, suburban mayors, and economic development types shouted their support. But for naysayers who tried — but failed — to put the issue before voters, the med mart was just another false hope for a desperately depressed city. And they had reason to think so: The med mart concept Cuyahoga County bought into on behalf of taxpayers is not revolutionary and it's not untested. In fact, it has failed before.

Perhaps more disconcerting, the man newly charged with bringing the project off the drawing board and onto the corner of Mall Drive and St. Clair has this to say about the original med mart plan: It probably won't work.

"You can't insert the mart model that you have in other industries into the medical industry," says Brian Casey, MMPI's general manager for the project since May. "[Hospitals and doctors] don't go mall shopping for things."

On the job just five months, Casey chooses not to comment on whatever med mart strategy MMPI sold the county on before he arrived. But he's swapping it for a very different approach.

A Flawed Model

The original med mart concept that promised to fill the convention center and area hotels bears a striking resemblance to a med mart proposed before — in Cleveland, in 1984. At the time, developer Forest City planned to create one in the old post office portion of Terminal Tower. Cleveland City Council was gung-ho on the plan as a means of driving traffic to the newly planned Tower City shopping district and hotel development, according to Plain Dealer reports at the time.

But Forest City quickly scrapped the med mart idea, saying it wasn't necessary to draw people to the new hotel. Just as Cuyahoga County and MMPI feared competition if a larger med mart in Nashville were to open first, Forest City at the time expressed concern that several other cities were further along in planning med marts of their own.

Birmingham, Alabama, was one of those other cities, and it became the only one to follow through. Its 10-story Medical Forum opened there in 1992, with seven floors intended for showcasing medical equipment and supplies, and three floors designed as laboratories where manufacturers could demonstrate how their equipment worked. The Medical Forum would bring convention-goers to Birmingham and fill its hotels and restaurants.

But the venture flopped. Within the first year that leases for med mart space were available, it was clear that medical manufacturers had no interest in the concept. The building was converted into regular offices and is still used that way today.

Perhaps the most stunning fallout of Birmingham's med mart collapse was revealed to Clevelanders in September 2007, a few months after Cuyahoga County commissioners plowed a quarter-cent sales tax hike through without voter opinion in order to finance MMPI's med mart here.