Port Authority not convincing critics that its proposed move is wise

As the most significant transformation of Cleveland's lakefront in this generation looms, the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority wants you to believe this: Trust us — we know what we're doing.

A fight for the hearts and minds of Greater Cleveland persists, as port officials make a political push to relocate the languishing port to a yet-to-be-built artificial landmass off East 55th Street. Like all major developments, this one promises economic vibrancy and opportunities for residents to shop, live and party on the coast. The plan is endorsed by Mayor Frank Jackson, the Cleveland Foundation, and a collection of suburban mayors and city development corporations.

So why are so many people calling it bullshit?

The massive project, with its technical and financial underpinnings, requires a lot of time for even the brightest Clevelander to understand, but one thing is certain — questioning the port authority's intentions is frowned upon. At a recent presentation of the port's plans before Cleveland city council, Adam Wasserman, the port authority's austere CEO, quipped that those who get their information about his operation from "the press" likely think the $283,000-a-year executive doesn't know what he's doing.

He's right. In recent weeks, critics of the move — including organized activists, independent watchdogs, boaters, editorial writers and even would-be mayor Bill Patmon — have chimed in on Wasserman's grand scheme to drastically convert the waterfront. The plan is an admitted gamble that banks on increased business at a port suffering in the present-day economy. Opponents ask: What will the impact be on the city's eastern waterfront, with its state park, popular marina and nature preserve? There are questions about the port's desire to invest millions on improvements at its current location. The daily news of corruption in local government adds to suspicions that something shady is afoot, especially when it comes to the pot of gold: the 110-acre property the port plans to vacate — the future site for a trendy lakefront district with shops, living spaces, hotels and offices.

In other words, who and what can we believe? When asked about the port's inability to convince local naysayers, port communications manager Luke Frazier stands firm: "People have long seen the port as this mysterious entity. We're not a cloak-and-dagger society. We're trying to provide the means for better economic growth."

One vocal critic calls the port's push nothing more than a slick P.R. campaign. "They don't have any figures; nobody has anything to hang their hat on," says Dominic LoGalbo, a retired transportation executive and veteran boater. "It's all speculation."

The port's corporate communications strategy, as presented via PowerPoint to the port's board in early September, outlines the marketing plan with zero irony: "Produce all necessary tools so that the region thinks what we are doing is valuable." Those tools include brochures, reports, a website and other means to win support from the public.

Scene witnessed the port's campaigning at a recent Cleveland city-council caucus meeting. Reporters received shiny blue folders, glossy tri-fold brochures and a copy of the day's PowerPoint presentation. The port's new maritime director, Patrick Coyle, talked about shipping trends, the desire of worldwide shippers to save time and money, and the advantages of transporting goods via ship versus rail and truck (the buzzword "green" was tossed around liberally). The port, according to Coyle, is banking on the St. Lawrence Seaway becoming a busy route for container shipping, a method of moving goods that involves large, boxcar-like receptacles.

Coyle also presented a plan to reconfigure the existing port by filling in one of the port's slips and constructing a $10 million manufacturing/warehouse building. When Ward 12 councilman Anthony Brancatelli asked who will move into this building, port officials admitted that the plan is "speculative." A leaser shouldn't be hard to find, they assured him.

Next up was Wasserman. After his quip about the cynical media, he outlined the port's plan to move to a 200-acre, man-made peninsula to be built north of the East 55th Marina. The port, Wasserman said, will take advantage of the Army Corp of Engineers' need to store the mud it dredges up from our local ship channel. The port and the feds will share the $300 million cost to build the peninsula. A figure of $700 million was thrown out as a possible final cost.

The new port will support a 1,000-acre swath of downtown smartly presented as an "International Trade District." This is about jobs and the city's economic future, officials said, and council members ate it up.

These suits aren't the only ones working with urgency. Days later, Scene talked with a handful of people who say they can't wrap their brains around the port's new plan. LoGalbo says Wasserman's plan is too vague, a backroom deal short on specifics, and he and others point to the port's recent history of curbing, or attempting to curb, public input. But their main beef is the port's decision to scrap a lakefront plan designed in 2004 by a broad coalition of public entities and citizen groups.

"The first study was done with the concern of bringing people to the waterfront," says LoGalbo. "This [plan] destroys a mile of waterfront they can't use." 

Where the port's glossy promotional material presents a vague picture, the opponents Scene met offered detailed maps and reports that make their arguments easier to follow. They hunt down every public record available on the matter. Their questions are reasonable, and even with mountains of information, they don't have the answers they want. Why would the port support a landmass that closes off a state park? How exactly is our relatively small port going to use 200 acres? Why force changes upon what's viewed as the area's best marina?

There is skepticism that the port can flourish in the container-shipping realm, and a 2008 study the port itself commissioned supports these doubts. One obstacle is the winter closing of the St. Lawrence Seaway. The closing "has historically been viewed as a huge disadvantage," according to the study. (Frazier admits that there is "no guarantee" the container shipping plan will work out).

Bill Gruber, a lawyer and member of the Dike 14 Nature Preserve Committee, fears that the dream of a comprehensive, people-friendly waterfront is at risk. "People are thinking 'We need jobs, we need development, we have to make sacrifices,'" says Gruber. "But you don't sacrifice the good thing we have already, especially when you don't need to."

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