Pointy-Head Welfare

Believe it or not, it's the smartest way to blow public money.

Midsummer Night's Dream Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue, Lakewood Through March 9, 216-521-2540.
When it comes to revitalizing Cleveland, Sheryl - Hoffman knows better than the downtown suits. - Walter  Novak
When it comes to revitalizing Cleveland, Sheryl Hoffman knows better than the downtown suits.

If the downtown suits have their way, Cuyahoga County will soon blow $350-$600 million on a new convention center. Never mind that these things always fail. The suits haven't been able to seriously plunder the public treasury since Browns Stadium. They're like heroin addicts on methadone. They desperately want back on the good stuff.

Problem is, voters don't get excited about building a new place for guys named Skippy to hold their strategic planning sessions. Hence, palms must be greased. Everyone from commissioners to councilmen will tack on pet projects -- funding for biotech and fuel-cell research, new housing, small business, and the arts.

This is known as "cover." When the convention center inevitably fails -- and it will, spectacularly -- your councilman can cover by saying, "Yeah, but what about those three houses we built?" The final tab will near $1 billion.

At first glance, it's hard to argue with stuff like biotech or business start-up grants. But this is Cleveland. That money will be quickly lost to bureaucratic chaos, sweetheart contracts, and good, wholesome bungling. Remember that $380 million school levy we passed nearly two years ago? Do you see any construction at your neighborhood school?

When it all boils down, the only sure bet is arts funding. You heard that right: Cleveland can be reborn by blowing money on the arts.

So what you're saying, moron, is that you want us to throw money at dainty guys in berets? You kiss your mother with that mouth?

That's exactly what I'm saying. And there's ammo to back it up.

You already know what the art joints have done for University Circle, but check out what the Cleveland Play House is doing for 85th & Euclid. Check out what Cleveland Public Theatre is doing for 64th & Detroit. Twenty years ago, no one would have thought Ohio City would become one of the coolest neighborhoods in the city. And it just so happens the place is lousy with art groups.

No one's saying the arts alone spurred revitalization. But no one's denying that they played a significant role.

Besides, have the downtown suits provided any evidence that their convention center will do better? Bzzzzzz. Sorry, but thanks for playing.

So you're saying it's smart money to pay some candy-ass 250 large to make a giant rubber stamp? You gotta be getting a cut, am I right?

Naah, nobody's talking about paying some guy with an arc welder $100,000 to slap scrap together and call it a statue. This is about giving money to neighborhood people -- like Art House, at Denison & Pearl.

"Seven or eight years ago, there were six boarded-up drug houses within a block of my house," says Sheryl Hoffman. "At one point I was so disgusted, I wanted to move."

Instead, she and five other women founded Art House in 1999. They converted an old glass-company building into combination gallery space/concert hall/ neighborhood-program center. Today, "People are buying and fixing up homes," Hoffman beams.

Yeah, but who needs yuppies moving in? If I wanted to pay five bucks for a brewski at the corner tavern, I'd move to Seattle or France.

Fair enough. But these aren't your BMW-variety yuppies who move in, jack up the housing prices, then call the city every time you park your car on the lawn or the dog gets loose. These are artists, a different brand of yuppie.

At Art House, 120 neighborhood kids take classes every week. Free. Studies show that kids with heavy arts exposure do better in reading. And it's no coincidence that the Cleveland School of the Arts has the highest attendance, highest graduation rate, and sends more kids to college than any school in the district.

You think a new convention center is gonna make your kid smarter?

Okay, smart guy, but in case you haven't noticed, we're broke.

Yeah, we are. But we're broke because we've been acting like morons. Whether it's letting the former school board sponge the district to death or letting the suits sell us Gateway and its 28,000 invisible jobs, we've been suckers. And now we're looking at the biggest sucker bet of all: A $350-$600 million convention center, which is bound to fail like every other city's convention center. Worse, you'll never even get to throw beer bottles there.

Best-case scenario: This thing creates 100 new catering and custodial jobs at slightly above minimum wage.

Worst-case scenario: 80 of these guys will get laid off when no one shows.

Current odds: 20:1 on play No. 2.

But say you stripped the whole levy down to $10 million and made it strictly for arts and culture. It costs $200,000 a year to run Art House, which means you'd have enough money to throw one of these things in 50 neighborhoods across the county. You save $990 million on the deal, your kid gets free classes, and suddenly people start moving in and fixing up the neighborhood.

So how do you know these art yuppies won't rip us off just like the suits?

We don't. But these are people who've spent their lives working for free, mooching donations, and getting things done on the cheap. They're into it, because they're into art. And they have a track record of revitalizing some of the worst neighborhoods in the city.

Compare this with the suits. They have a track record of taking our money and promising invisible jobs. You hear any of them volunteering to work shifts at the convention center? You see them offering free classes to your kids?

Okay, but if I go for this, I ain't gonna have to go look at no art, am I?

Don't be a moron. We both know that the highest form of art is still a deep corner route to Quincy Morgan for six.

Think of this as kicking a few bucks to the parish hall. You know they're doing stuff for the kids. You know they're serving dinner to the old people. And whether you go or not, you know your money is doing some good.

Which makes it the right thing to do.

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