Honey, I Shrunk the City!

Has Dennis Eckart taken the growth out of growth association?

King Britt Modä Saturday, August 9

The Greater Cleveland Growth Association is the nation's oldest and largest chamber of commerce, the region's leading business group for 155 years. Dennis Eckart earns more than $373,000 annually as president and CEO of the nonprofit, whose mission is to "serve as the catalyst for economic growth and jobs creation in Northeast Ohio."

"Eckart has racked up some impressive accomplishments during his first two years as president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Growth Association . . ."

-- David Burnett
Crain's Cleveland Business

Since Eckart was named president in September 2000, Greater Cleveland has lost more than 70,000 jobs -- the most precipitous decline since the Great Depression, according to the Ohio Department of Jobs & Families and the Council for Economic Opportunities.

The city fell to 49th place in median income among the 50 largest cities in America, and came in dead last in per capita income at $14,291.

"Dennis has been great . . . He is definitely value-added."

-- Mayor Jane Campbell

Cleveland stumbled to an all-time low in Forbes's "2003 Rankings of American Cities for Businesses & Careers," slipping into 172nd place, below Cincinnati, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Toledo, and even Canton-Massillon.

Retail businesses in downtown Cleveland continued to close faster than Saddam-souvenir shops in Baghdad. In April 2003, the Wall Street Journal ranked Cleveland last among 33 major U.S. cities in retail activity.

"I'm happy Dennis is head of the Growth Association, and I hope he stays there for a long time . . . He knows business."

-- County Commissioner Peter Lawson Jones

New construction in downtown Cleveland has slowed to a crawl: There are no major projects under way and none on schedule. Total commercial construction in the region fell 10 percent in 2002, according to McGraw-Hill's Construction Information Group, with another steep decline expected for 2003.

Major public works projects are also in jeopardy. In June, the Federal Transit Administration balked at providing funding for the $300 million Euclid Corridor Project, after federal analysts graded Cleveland's proposal lowest for cost-effectiveness among all major metropolitan-transit projects. Meanwhile, support for a new convention center fizzled, as competing developers and wary elected officials wrangled over budgets, locations, funding, and designs.

"It looks like he's doing some fine work."

-- State Representative Jim Trakas

TRW abandoned its world headquarters here. LTV Steel collapsed into bankruptcy. The 109-year-old Midland Steel closed. Gliatech, once the area's biotech showcase, went bankrupt. CCAi Consulting, a local technology leader employing 400 workers as recently as 2000, shut its doors.

The big-name corporations have been joined by more than 3,000 other businesses, large and small, in an unprecedented run on bankruptcy court in the last three years.

"I happen to believe that Dennis Eckart has done an outstanding job."

-- Frank Jackson, President
Cleveland City Council

While many public officials express praise for Eckart, cold facts and hard data paint a dismal portrait of a once-mighty region losing jobs, businesses, tax revenue, investment, and people. Cleveland is shrinking, Cuyahoga County is shrinking, and Northeast Ohio is shrinking -- all at alarming rates. Dennis Eckart and the Growth Association seem unconcerned, preferring to focus time and effort on exciting plans for a utopian future -- many, many years from now.

Homegrown in Euclid, Wonder Boy congressman, handsome TV talking head, all-star lobbyist -- Dennis Eckart appeared to be the perfect lead for the Growth Association, set to play a featured role in yet another comeback for the Comeback City.

He breezed into Congress at age 30, handpicked successor to political mentor Charles Vanik, a fresh-faced Democrat winning against the tide of the 1980 Reagan Revolution. Redistricting claimed his seat in the old 22nd District after a single term, but Eckart made an effortless transition to the reconfigured 11th District and won handily, strolling to reelection five more times. While never the Ohio delegation's top dog -- he was overshadowed by congressional legends Louis Stokes and Mary Rose Oakar -- he served ably, a solid team player and effective networker.

Eckart opted out of Congress after 12 years, dusted off his law degree from John Marshall, and joined the tony Winston & Strawn law firm in D.C. He didn't see many courtrooms, but he did spend a lot of time in the back rooms of Washington, lobbying for heavyweights like SBC, TCI, and the American Gaming Association -- the political-action arm of Nevada gambling interests. Viva Las Vegas.

He reestablished his Cleveland roots as an election-night commentator for Channel 5. The hometown link grew stronger when he left Winston & Strawn for Cleveland-based Arter & Hadden, joining its Washington office. Two years later, he crossed the street to Baker & Hostetler, continuing to expand his list of blue-chip clients.

He was still at the top of his lobbying game when the Growth Association tapped him for president and CEO in 2000, with a three-year contract and a mandate to reinvigorate the venerable organization.

"When I came in, I was looking for things to change the way the traditional chamber of commerce did its business," says Eckart. "In the past, we had way too many quick fixes that didn't address the underlying problems . . . Jim Rhodes chasing smokestacks wasn't the answer."

The slap at Ohio's most celebrated governor of the past 50 years is telling. Rhodes was a champion of the "Do It Now" philosophy: More highways, more jobs, more industry -- right now. Eckart dismisses this as shortsighted.

The first item on his agenda wasn't employment figures or business growth; it was future airport expansion. The landmark Cleveland-Brook Park pact that former mayors Mike White and Tom Coyne hammered out after 10 years of feuding almost came undone when the Brook Park City Council failed to ratify the agreement. Eckart helped coordinate the successful referendum campaign that trumped council and saved the day. "That was huge," says Eckart. "I spent a lot of time working on that . . . We got the initiative on the ballot, we got it passed in Brook Park, and it wasn't easy."

Unfortunately, it appears that the deal will crash and burn nonetheless. Mayor Jane Campbell recently notified Brook Park Mayor Mark Eliot that the city would not proceed with the scheduled acquisition of 300-plus Brook Park homes, effectively reneging on the whole agreement. Airport expansion is no longer an urgent priority. In the wake of 9-11 and a lagging economy, it may be delayed by as much as 10 years. Besides, the City doesn't have the money right now.

Eckart has been oddly silent about the airport's undoing, evidently too busy with other grand plans -- including one he describes as "a chance to reinvent the city." For months, he worked the halls in Washington and Columbus to increase amounts and revise parameters for spending hundreds of millions in upcoming transportation funds to provide for Innerbelt and Shoreway reconfigurations.

"I said there must be a way to tear down this Berlin Wall we call the Shoreway," says Eckart. "The issue is embracing our geography."

The east Shoreway, he notes, is "an expensive proposition." That it is: six miles of land acquisition, demolition, reconstruction, and hundreds of millions of tax dollars -- to move the main artery a little bit south. "But the west Shoreway and downtown are not expensive projects -- maybe $60 or $70 million -- that will create hundreds of acres of new lakefront property."

But Cleveland already has hundreds of acres of undeveloped waterfront property, including Whiskey Island and Burke Airport's vast wasteland, and a new Shoreway could take 8 to 12 years to complete. State and federal money isn't scheduled to start flowing until after 2006.

Many business leaders take issue with Eckart's focus on dreamworks to the detriment of immediate concerns -- namely, an economic picture that grows dimmer by the day. But they will only speak anonymously. There is no upside to alienating the area's most powerful business organization.

"It's a mistake," a local construction-organization president says of the Shoreway plans. "The cost is prohibitive, and the benefits -- what are the benefits? You tear up downtown for years, without the guarantee of one permanent new job."

Others question the wisdom of making the ambitious project a priority. "Cleveland is in the worst economy I've seen in 41 years," says the chairman of one of the area's largest companies. "And all they can talk about is pie in the sky . . . Dennis is a handsome guy, and he wears nice suits, but I don't know what the hell they're thinking over there."

Eckart is undeterred, pressing on with more big-ticket items. Along with Joe Roman of Cleveland Tomorrow, he's been a point man on the new convention-center project. Eckart and Roman presided over the June press conference announcing the selection of Forest City's riverfront design as the best choice, hoping to forge a consensus and move the project from concept to reality. And it was Eckart who worked Columbus lawmakers to enable the county to raise service taxes for necessary funding.

But according to a poll commissioned by the Growth Association, which Eckart refuses to make public, voters are unimpressed -- and overwhelmingly opposed to increasing taxes to pay for the project.

There was more bad news from Columbus. The new state laws Eckart lobbied so hard to get passed may handcuff county officials who want to include a smorgasbord of voter-enticing extras on a November levy. Legislators limited use of the new money to construction and "capital costs" only -- which means no portion can be allocated to the arts, the neighborhoods, or high-tech development. "The General Assembly didn't do us any favors," Commissioner Jimmy Dimora told The Plain Dealer.

Commissioner Tim McCormack had a lot more to say, firing off a letter scolding Eckart for "irresponsible" actions and lobbying efforts undertaken "without our knowledge or involvement."

Meanwhile, as cancellations and complications plague Eckart's colossal undertakings, the people and projects crucial to reinvigorating Cleveland go begging.

Sadhu Johnston, president of the Cleveland Green Building Coalition, chose Cleveland over a western boom town as the better place to make a difference. He has been here less than three years, but has quickly gained a reputation for action.

Johnston's group has renovated an 1891 structure at Lorain and Fulton, turning it into a showcase for "green building," the latest trend in environment-friendly architecture. The coalition is now involved in building a "green" school, day-care center, and several homes in the area, bringing welcome jobs and improvements to the near West Side.

"I moved here from Boulder, Colorado -- considered one of the most desirable places to live in the country," says Johnston. "But it's dead culturally, ethnically. In many ways it's dead, compared to what Cleveland offers. Cleveland is rich with opportunities . . . But we need the existing leadership to see what's happening and take advantage of it."

In fact, he argues that Cleveland can become a center for the green-construction movement. "We're talking about getting a bigger market share of the fastest growing part of the industry," says Johnston. "And we could take advantage of that in ways that we're not doing."

But he can't get the Growth Association to return his calls.

"The new city administration has been helpful," he says. "[Development Director] Tim Mueller gets it. Jane Campbell gets it . . . Downtown Cleveland Partnership is working with us; they see the value." Then his voice trails off. "But the times we've tried to partner with the Growth Association, we either don't get a return call, or we get a respectful 'No, we don't want to get involved in that.'"

"I've heard [Dennis Eckart] is a wonderful man, and I've tried to reach out, tried to make that connection," adds Johnston. "But I've never met him, never heard from him."

Bill Nemeth is another entrepreneur with attitude. He's president of Mirifex Systems in Strongsville, a management- and technology-consulting firm that started with 3 employees in 1999 and boasts more than 150 today. Sales exceeded $4 million in 2002, and Nemeth expects that to triple this year. The pace was enough to earn Mirifex a place on Entrepreneur Magazine and Dun & Bradstreet's "Hot 100: America's Fastest Growing New Businesses" this year.

Surely the Growth Association helped pave the way.

"Not at all," says Nemeth. "We've gotten less than no support from them . . . They seem to be involved in a lot of planning, a lot of posturing, but very little real activity. Quite frankly, we're running a business. We don't have time to theorize. We want action."

In the last year alone, Mortgage Doctors, a Macedonia residential and commercial finance company, saw its staff double, while its volume increased by 400 percent.

Can the company explain how the Growth Association assisted its rise? "I wish I could," says CEO Cherie Dimmerling, "but I can't."

It's discouraging news -- especially since Dimmerling is a board member of Growth Capital, the financing arm of the Growth Association. "Yes, I've been on the board for five years, and it is frustrating," she says. "There are a lot of good people at Growth, but -- I don't want to offend anyone -- but there's such a thing as too much discussion, too much planning. Sometimes you have to roll up your sleeves and just do it."

David Snyder was one of Cleveland's few home-run hitters in the e-business boom of the '90s. In 1993, he founded RealLogic, a software company; he sold it five years later to behemoth Computer Associates for what was said to be more than $100 million. His new IT venture, Acero, is located downtown, but may not stay for long.

"I love Cleveland," says Snyder, "but the environment for business growth has deteriorated so much here . . . We never heard from the Growth Association at RealLogic, not once, and we don't hear from them now."

Snyder says the problem is not diligence or commitment; it's strategy. "I know they're trying," he says, "but they just don't get it. Cleveland can't afford to focus on 5- and 10-year projects, while other cities and other regions race ahead . . . The world won't wait for the Growth Association."

Eckart says he hasn't forgotten his group's "economic growth and jobs creation" mission. He has an answer to immediate concerns, and it's another big idea.

He's spearheading the formation of a new organization to take Greater Cleveland to the next level: Team NEO, a partnership with the chambers of commerce of Lorain County, Youngstown-Warren, Greater Akron, and Stark County, as well as Cleveland Tomorrow and First Energy.

"I don't agree with the old view of regional competition," he says. "The next great American cities are going to be interconnected, interdependent regions. I think the days of self-serving cities with political boundaries are passé."

Team NEO made its debut in January with a glowing press release: "Team NEO Launches." The good news was followed by a minor correction: Team NEO didn't launch. "Note that it's not up and running yet," said an April missive from the Growth Association. The teammates have pledged $3.4 million to get the motor running, but there is no one to turn the ignition key. No CEO, no director, no staff.

The holdup is the customary nationwide search for the very best leader. Seven months later, no names have surfaced.

Not to worry. When it does get going, Team NEO will quickly become the panacea for all of Cleveland's economic woes. According to Crain's Cleveland Business, "Eckart said the Team NEO staff will have the broad charge of helping to attract, retain, expand and develop world-class businesses here, as it serves as something of a one-stop shop to bolster Northeast Ohio's economy. 'This will be the 1-800 number if you want to come to Greater Cleveland,' said Mr. Eckart."

If the description sounds familiar, it's because that role is already taken. In the 1999 Growth Association Buyers' Guide, then-President and CEO Carole Hoover described the organization as "your one-stop resource for business" and "a regional network of one-stop workforce development." If Team NEO will be the new "one-stop shop," why do we need the Growth Association?

Eckart explains: "Team NEO will take over as far as business and jobs growth, which will free up the Growth Association to focus on two areas: oversight of COSE [Council of Small Enterprises] and public policy efforts for the region."

But pesky questions promptly show up, like ants at a picnic: Do we really want to be partners with downtrodden Youngstown? Or the aptly named Stark County? Who will decide which area within the region gets which new businesses? And how did First Energy make the team as the only corporate member?

Moreover, trying to fix problems by creating yet another bureaucracy seems to support complaints that the Growth Association concerns itself with "a lot planning, a lot of posturing, but very little real activity," as Nemeth says. Another corporate leader sums it up: "We don't need another group; we need someone to get out there and promote Cleveland."

Even those who praise Eckart express reservations. "I think Dennis has been doing a good job in a tough economy, and I'm very optimistic about Cleveland and the future here," says former Commissioner Lee Weingart, "but I don't see the logic of this Team NEO. When it comes to new businesses, we've got to compete hard for them, even in the region . . . It doesn't do Cleveland much good if a business moves to Youngstown or Medina . . . that's just reality."

A top Cleveland business consultant is less charitable: "This thing doesn't even look good on paper. They identify these 'clusters' that they want to focus on, including just about everything under the sun in Northeast Ohio --chemicals, autos, medicine, high-tech, banking, polymers, services and the rest -- all spread over 13 counties. I don't consider that very focused."

Others see Eckart's determination to hand the growth baton to Team NEO and concentrate on COSE and lobbying as problematic. The Growth Association established COSE as its small-business arm in 1972. COSE began providing affordable group insurance just as health-care costs began to soar. Membership exploded. Today, the Growth Association boasts 16,700 members; 98 percent are COSE members.

COSE has been successful as a health-insurance collective, but it's not a major factor in new industry or job growth. Many city leaders believe that the Growth Association became preoccupied with COSE over the past decade, diminishing its efforts in other areas. "They've been patting themselves on the back for COSE for so long, they've forgotten their mission," says the chairman of a local contractors' group. "I mean, why do they call it the Growth Association?"

Even ardent Eckart supporter Campbell concedes the point. "For a long time, COSE dominated what they've been doing," she says, "Now, in the last year and a half, they're focusing more on the public-policy side."

But the COSE fixation doesn't seem to be over yet. The most visible effort undertaken during Eckart's tenure is the current high-priced multimedia campaign to promote . . . COSE.

A visit to the Growth Association offices at the Terminal Tower does nothing to counter the perception that Cleveland's growth prospects are no better than Martin Short's.

It's midweek, midday. The offices are neat, clean, neutral, and nicely furnished, but there's no activity, no noise at all. It could be the coma ward at a small hospital.

At the end of the corridor is a wall lined with sleek annual publications, all geared toward facilitating growth: Cleveland Business Services Directory; Largest Employers Directory; Cleveland Employment Resource Guide; International Trade Directory; Cuyahoga County Manufacturing Directory. All are three or four years old. None has been updated since Dennis Eckart took the helm.

There's a receptionist on duty in the empty entrance area. She adamantly refuses to give her name -- not even her first name -- insisting that no story about the Growth Association include any personal reference to her. It is an odd introduction to the public face of Cleveland commerce.

A reporter asks whether Eckart is available to talk about the association. No.

"His schedule is such a nightmare," says one media-relations person. "He's just so busy, he doesn't have any time at all," says another.

Eckart eventually grants a brief interview and agrees to a second session to answer follow-up questions. But it just isn't possible. "You'll just have to go with what you've got," a PR person explains. "He doesn't even have a few minutes."

It's understandable. He couldn't find the time for a scheduled appearance at the Cuyahoga County Mayors & Managers Association meeting in July to discuss convention-center specifics, either. As the project slipped into crisis mode, he wasn't available to answer The Plain Dealer's questions about key issues. And there was no time to answer any public questions about the poll that predicted the center would be pounded on the November ballot.

When will President Eckart be available to talk about the Growth Association?

"Don't know . . . not anytime soon . . . impossible to say . . . I couldn't tell you . . .," say the PR people.

The receptionist seems relieved when the phone finally rings . . . quietly. She answers, listens for a minute, then hangs up . . . quietly. Wrong number.

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