Clowns To The Left Of Us

Here We Are, Stuck With The Medical Mart

The drumbeat of worrisome news surrounding the project that's supposed to save us all has become steady and ominous. New York is planning to build one! Medical Mart Properties Inc. doesn't like the site that our big, expensive study chose! MMPI's owners are seeking federal bailout money! Even Mayor Inaction Jackson, who previously seemed content to let the county commissioners ram this down our throats, has roused himself for a trip to Chicago to ask MMPI why they haven't saved us yet.

Can't wait to hear the sunny assessment he comes back with. Because no matter how absurd this debacle becomes, no matter how much more money is squandered on lawyers and consultants and studies and PR, no one associated with it will ever admit what should be obvious to all by now - this always was a spectacularly bad idea, a ruse wrapped in a boondoggle and smothered in secret sauce. And its proponents have always known it.

When The Plain Dealer reported in November that developers in New York are moving along with their own medical mart project, the paper's editorial board had the temerity to call them "copy cats." Did they really not know that the New York version had been underway about as long as Cleveland's? Or did they just hope you didn't? Free Times noted the New York project in August '07 and passed along this from the Chicago Tribune: "The country's largest convention hall, [Chicago's] McCormick Place, is hurting for business … With McCormick Place's latest addition, Chicago is aiming squarely for the lucrative association and medical meeting segment of the business coveted by so many."

The medical mart concept is even older than these recent proposals. As Roldo Bartimole reported at in November, Baltimore went through all of this in the '90s. Proponents there made all the same claims ("They say the proximity of the John Hopkins Medical institutions and the University of Maryland Medical System, the National Institutes of Health and the Food and Drug Administration makes the city a highly desirable location for a medical mart") and issued all the same warnings ("If we don't do this somebody relatively soon, in a major city, will do it … It's too big an industry for it not to be done at some point"). That was 1991. There is still no medical mart in Baltimore.

But don't mention any of this to head cheerleaders Jimmy Dimora and Tim Hagan - the sound of doubt hurts their ears. In '07 they were like angry infomercial pitchmen, insisting that this was the deal of the century, its upside so blindingly obvious that it would be silly to debate raising the sales tax to pay for it, and an outrage to waste precious time on a countywide vote. The suits, whose bidding Hagan and Dimora were doing, did their best to help shout down opposition. When skeptics had the audacity to launch a petition drive to force a ballot measure, Greater Cleveland Partnership hired an airplane to tow a banner reading, "Don't sign the petition! We need Medical Mart!" The Convention and Visitors Bureau staged Astroturf rallies outside the public hearings, which were jokes anyway. One insightful citizen commented, "I think what we have is desperation, and with desperation, we become delusional," then became the only speaker that Hagan saw the need to cut off.

Funny how such a self-evidently brilliant plan requires so much arm-twisting.

For a while I considered writing about this whole farce as a shared delusion. But to suggest that the people pushing this project are delusional would be an insult to psychotics everywhere. They haven't lost their connection to reality; they're simply ignoring it because it's in their interest to do so. For the downtown business community there is some promise of reward and virtually no risk, so why not?

For well-meaning but overwhelmed politicians like Jackson, there's the chance to be seen as doing something - anything - and by the time this mess reaches Gateway, what-were-we-thinking levels of notoriety, they'll have moved on to higher offices or alpaca farms.

For naked double-dealers like Dimora and the downtown plutocrats, it's another sandbox to lord over, another round of contracts for lawyers and consultants, another series of lucrative real-estate deals charged to the taxpayers' tab. What's that, the money set aside for Fred Nance's tribute seems to have run out? No worries, there's plenty more where that came from.

As you read this, a reported $42 million - the haul so far from the commissioners' quarter-percent sales-tax hike - sits in a bank doing exactly nothing for the local economy. Think about that the next time you drive by a crumbling, vacant building that we can't afford to knock down. Or see that a favorite small shop or restaurant has closed. Or hear that another friend has been laid off. Then think about how the commissioners are wasting precious money and time on a proven loser, and what you're going to do about it.


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