"A MAJOR PILLAR OF THIS ADMINISTRATION is fairness and equity for all persons," County Executive Armond Budish said earlier this month. It was a statement accompanying an executive order that banned all non-essential government travel to North Carolina. Budish issued the order in the wake of legislation passed there that excluded LGBT people from legal protections.
"We invite those businesses that share our views, such as Pepsi, Hewlett-Packard, Google, Dow Chemical, IBM and Apple to bring their businesses to a much more welcoming place," Budish said. "Cuyahoga County."
Budish also headlined the roster of elite local signatories on a letter, courtesy of the PR pros at Dix & Eaton, that invited PayPal to establish a presence in Northeast Ohio. PayPal had canceled its plans to install an operations center in Charlotte, and the letter to CEO Daniel Schulman was meant to entice the company north. It cited the Gay Games and an influx of millennials with advanced degrees as examples of Cleveland's capacity for welcoming and growth.
The North Carolina travel ban was interpreted, at least in media circles, as little more than a publicity stunt. WCPN host Rick Jackson joked on the air that no county personnel were traveling to North Carolina anyway. As such, it might be submitted as the latest example of Armond Budish's earnest, but toothless, brand of podium leadership. Eighteen months into his administration (Budish was elected with 59 percent of the vote in November 2014), it seems fair to inquire: What does Budish stand for?
Beyond "fairness and equity for all persons," what are the real pillars of Cuyahoga County government under the former state legislator and Golden Opportunities host from Beachwood? And what has he accomplished while in office?
At noon on Thursday, April 21, Budish will try to let us know. In his second State of the County address, he'll take stock of his desired image for the county — very broadly, a government that provides opportunity, promotes equity and gets results — and he'll announce, as he did last year, specific policy initiatives to help make Northeast Ohio the "hub for innovation and entrepreneurship" that he's envisioned, since he took office, with such dewy eyes.
The address will take place at the Cleveland Convention Center (which won't yet have fully transitioned to Huntington branding), the crown jewel of the $465-million, taxpayer-funded mega project ushered into existence by his predecessors. Parking will almost certainly be a headache.**
FROM BEHIND THE BLOCKADE of manila folders on his king-size desk, Armond Budish rocked in his chair, gazed at the miniature pink elephant before him, and said that the Global Center for Health Innovation was an "evolving concept."
He was sitting for an interview with Scene, and the talking points had at last given way to hotter-button quotables. E.g.:
"I believe that we're doing everything we can to make sure that it's a significant success," he said of the Global Center. "And to do that, I believe we need to make sure that it becomes a Global Center for Health Innovation."
The suggestion seemed to be that the massive building constructed as part of the convention center complex in 2013 was not, as yet, living up to its name. In fact it was not even an example of its name. It was the misfit sibling of the Convention Center proper — which, despite having helped Cleveland land the RNC, has itself failed to attract a regular stream of major trade shows — and its mission and its brand were as fungible as its title.
In Cuyahoga County, titles are important. The "Global Center for Health Innovation," for instance, had been alchemized on spreadsheets by a committee specifically assigned to the christening. Or re-christening, to be more precise. (It was known, in headier days, as the Medical Mart.)
"Global" was a good word, most of them agreed. "Health" was a good word, too, a serious word that encompassed important regional themes. "Innovation!" Man. That right there was a slam-dunk word. "Innovation" was so sizzly and high-end, theme-wise, that you could practically order it rare.
Cleveland.com's Mark Naymik, one of two or three roving reporters who every so often cast a county-ward gaze in the absence of a dedicated beat writer, published an op-ed slideshow in January that indexed the Global Center's current tenants. It was home to a yoga studio, he reported, and an offsite college classroom. Naymik argued that the promised "Superstore for Doctors" was really just a tragic and oft-vacant shell, another high-priced embarrassment for a county government that had failed to assert much of an identity in the wake of the commissioner era.
The Global Center for Health Innovation was just another dream — a lot like former County Executive Ed FitzGerald's Great Lakes Expo, perhaps, except real — at which pillaged taxpayers could now do little but roll their eyes.
Not Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish. The adjectives he used, when talking about the Global Center for Health Innovation, were the following: evolving, significant, creative, best, outstanding, leading, tremendous, smart, best, fabulous, key, tremendous, exciting, exciting, bigger, exciting, optimistic.
Even the name itself, "the Global Center for Health Innovation," seemed possessed of an almost mystic buzz when Budish said it. It was as if the county executive thought that by Beetlejuice-esque incantation, he could cheerlead the facility to life.
Even when asked about the tenant situation — the convention management team, which already employs high-priced sales people and VPs, recently contracted with an outside brokerage firm, Colliers International, to seek tenants to fill the remaining vacant space (about 15 percent) — Budish emphasized quality over quantity.
"There's always an effort to bring in new tenants," he said. "But it has to be the right tenants. We're not just filling space. It's not just an office building. It's got to be tenants that fill the goal of making it a Center for Health Innovation."
Presumably, the same thinking would apply to events. Budish said he didn't know precisely how many "flagship medical conferences" the Global Center had hosted, but he vigorously refuted the idea that there were only "a few per year." He estimated that he'd personally been to "dozens."
Budish was also asked about the idea of hosting weddings and proms at the Global Center in 2016, and what message that might send to taxpayers.
"City Hall is a City Hall for government, but they do a wedding there periodically," Budish said. "So if there's a way to add a little revenue, you always want to add. But that's not the purpose. We want it to be a Center for Health Innovation."
To that end, Budish was pleased last year to announce the appointment of Fred DeGrandis as the Global Center's Managing Director. Budish also announced something called the Executive Advisory Council, composed of some of the region's top minds — "leading, tremendous, smart, best," etc. — to steer the Global Center toward its fullest potential. MetroHealth's President and CEO Dr. Akram Boutros, University Hospitals' Dr. Marco Costa, Cleveland State University's president Ronald Berkman, Nottingham-Spirk's John Nottingham and other big names were appointed as members.
Cleveland Clinic's Dr. Tom Graham — "One of the best innovation minds I've ever met," said Budish — chaired the Executive Advisory Council until he accepted a job in Florida in December 2015. Carla Smith, Executive VP at HIMSS, was announced as Graham's replacement Jan. 20.
"Carla Smith is moving the Global Center in the absolute right direction," Budish said. "She's brought in the Connect-a-Thon on a regular basis, all kinds of seminars and conferences. She is a tremendous asset."
No doubt. But she also represents the Global Center's biggest tenant, in terms of square footage, by a factor of almost nine. HIMSS stands for Healthcare Information Management Systems Society. It occupies the fourth floor of the Global Center and leases 40,087 square feet. (The tenant with the second-highest square footage is University Hospitals / Philips, with 4,614.) The reason why that's significant is because Executive Advisory Council members are given a half-off deal. It's a hell of a perk.
The Global Center is notoriously stingy with lease details these days, but we know HIMSS was paying a variable rate ($1 - $26 / square foot) in 2015. Now that Carla Smith chairs the advisory council, HIMSS may yet receive further discounts.
When Smith was announced as chair, three new board members were announced as well. One of them was Barbara Casey, a senior executive director at CISCO. Though CISCO only leases 942 square feet at the Global Center, it was paying full market rate ($26/square foot) in 2015. With the Advisory Council discount, CISCO will presumably begin paying half too.
When asked to confirm, the Convention Center's Director of Communications and PR, Dave Johnson, said they do not share lease information. That's been the Convention Center's recent line. The thinking is that it's bad for business if potential tenants are hip to discounts, but Scene did obtain the lease numbers in early 2015.
At that time, the medical-startup funding and networking firm BioEnterprise and the product-design consultancy SmartShape were both leasing their space for free; six tenants paid $13/square foot; Johnson Controls, a company that identifies as "global," but mostly builds energy efficiency tools and automotive seats, paid $22/square foot; four companies, including Forbo Flooring, paid $26/square foot; Dixon Hughes Goodman, an accounting firm, paid $28/square foot; and HIMSS paid a variable rate.
The appointment of existing tenants to the Advisory Council, and the resulting loss in lease revenue (if indeed revenue is lost), illustrates a peculiar operational calculus for a facility that's already underperforming against modest estimates.
On the other hand, keeping "the right" tenants by any means necessary reinforces the illusion of capacity and energy in the sundry fields of medical innovation. Moreover, it positions the Global Center for Health Innovation as the real and symbolic center of Budish's vision for Cuyahoga County as the "Silicon Valley of Healthcare."**
COUNTY EXECUTIVE ARMOND BUDISH rocked in his chair, gazed at the miniature pink elephant before him, and uttered a string of buzzwords about the workforce question.
The workforce question, we're told, is one of the most significant issues facing the region. Under its vast umbrella are housed any number of subsidiary issues: public transit (access to jobs), lending programs (access to capital), and even pre-kindergarten education (access to "long-term talent pipelines"). It's one of the concerns over which the business community gets most regularly exercised.
And thus, it's one of the concerns about which Budish repeatedly heard during his "100 Meetings in 100 Days" at the outset of his term. That was the big PR push when Budish took office in January 2015, his immediate and meaningful engagement with business leaders. Budish wanted to publicize his eagerness to meet and listen, to discuss challenges, to "connect the dots."
The Greater Cleveland Partnership's Joe Roman, who helped Budish identify leaders to meet with, and who attended at least four meetings himself, told Scene that the meetings typically assembled 6 to 8 "like-minded companies" — a far cry from 100 individual meetings — and that "the single biggest message that came out of them was that employers and business owners need to address the workforce question."
There it is again.
According to county documents summarizing the meetings, the workforce question meant "supply and development of talent"; "access to capital; "access to opportunity"; and "a streamlined government that gets results."
According to County Councilman Jack Schron, who ran against Budish in 2014, the workforce question was "a monolithic blob." And though he credited Budish for sitting down with business leaders (a demographic to which he belongs) he tendered the observation that there seemed to have been an awful lot of meeting and talking about the workforce question and not too many visible answers.
Budish would counter that the answers aren't visible because there simply isn't adequate media coverage of the county anymore.
"We have a whole lot of accomplishments," he told Scene, "things that have helped people and continue to help people move forward. The reason people don't get a complete picture is because the word doesn't get out."
Well, now. Word certainly got out about the North Carolina travel ban and the "fairness and equity for all persons" pillar. Word got out about the county's potential financing for upgrades at the Quicken Loans Arena (over and above sin tax dollars). Word got out about the 100 Meetings in 100 Days. But it's true that the unwieldy, mercurial workforce question, much like the unwieldy, mercurial institution of county government itself (to say nothing of the PR pap Budish wants slung), is, regrettably, just extremely boring.