The Real Cleveland Rising was the Friends We Made Along the Way

Plenty of diversity but limited results at 2019 summit, capstone report finds

Cleveland Rising Capstone Project, prepared by Dix & Eaton. - Dix & Eaton
Dix & Eaton
Cleveland Rising Capstone Project, prepared by Dix & Eaton.

Nearly 80% of those surveyed by Dix & Eaton as part of a Cleveland Rising "Capstone Project" believe that Cleveland is not prepared for social and economic progress. Nevertheless, 20% of those who participated in the summit are still engaged, in some form or fashion, with their issue-based working groups.

Cleveland Rising was the civic extravaganza staged over three days in 2019 at Public Auditorium downtown. Its promoters, a who's-who of business leaders, boosters, and economic development hacks, dreamed that the summit would accelerate "equitable economic growth" in the region and "cultivate trust." This was meant to be achieved by gathering a diverse cross-section of the population and unleashing their collective creativity to solve big, systemic problems.

Its failure was inevitable, in our view, based on flaws inherent in the summit's design, execution and promotion. While the capstone report offers a more clear-eyed assessment of the summit's difficulties, it continues to misapprehend the root causes of the region's economic woes.

In any case,  two years and eight months after the summit itself, the sun appears to have finally set on Cleveland Rising. And though Cleveland itself may not have risen — at least not in ways its organizers foretold — one of its co-chairs, Justin Bibb, has ascended to the Mayor's chair. In fact, the "corny and unbridled optimism" that organizers said was necessary to participate in the summit seems to have transitioned to optimism about the new crop of leaders across Greater Cleveland's civic and nonprofit ecosystem, Bibb the marquee name among them.

The 19-page report was delivered to the inboxes of summit participants Wednesday and was a surprise for many, seeing as two-plus years and a global pandemic have elapsed.  There is not much to report about the report. Its pages recount the summit's goals and reframe its priorities in light of the 2020 George Floyd protests, dramatically overstating, in our view, the degree to which racial equity was a formal component of the proceedings.

The report does acknowledge, in hindsight, the challenges of moving from ideas to action. This was the subject of a section titled,  "the chaos of consensus building." 

"A few organizational leaders praised the philosophy and spirit of the effort but also acknowledged the challenges to transform a large-scale, inclusive brainstorm into an easily actionable mechanism to drive sustainable change and improvement," the report found.

"You can only do so much at the grassroots level," said Cleveland Rising Launch Leader Lenora Inez Brown, in one of the section's highlighted quotes. "You have to have people who can clear paths and have that voice and perspective to keep the path open."

Global Cleveland Executive Director Joe Cimperman, added, "You can't have that diversity, in regard to intention and skill set, and give them a whiteboard and expect them to make something immediately clear and coherent." 

Despite these challenges, survey respondents celebrated the diversity of the summit participants and the depth and breadth of the dialogues that took place. "CLE Rising’s ability to convene a diverse cohort of participants was a distinguishing attribute, and the conversation represented a broad and deep discussion around Cleveland’s future."

The report's "calls to action" were centered on the importance of ongoing public participation in regional planning. Local leaders must engage residents, the report said, make their work accessible, and "find links, alignment and efficiencies to advance promising solutions and impact results," whatever that means.

Still, the report's authors and the summit's launch leaders continue to misapprehend the region's economic failures and cling to the delusion that "increasing trust" will magically lead to growth.

"The economic burdens and lack of trust that are holding Greater Cleveland's economy back cannot be solved—regardless of the appetite for change—without first addressing the crisis of racial inequity," wrote the NAACP's Danielle Sydnor, in an introduction.

"The difficulty in advancing community priorities in Cleveland is a lack of collaboration and trust," the report states matter-of-factly. And, later, more somberly: "Even greater community participation and trust would be required to move the needle on major priorities and common challenges."

Out of curiosity, was it a lack of trust that coerced the City of Cleveland into handing $100 million in incentives to Sherwin-Williams as homage for constructing its global headquarters downtown? Was it a lack of trust that duped city council into foregoing an additional 30 years of taxes from the Flats East Bank development? How much more trust would have been required to stop the County from bailing out the Hilton Hotel to the tune of $20 million per year during the pandemic, even as it pays through the nose on debt service? Whose lack of trust convinced the city and the county to agree to a ludicrous lease extension with the Cleveland Guardians that includes $285 million in public subsidies for stadium upgrades and new administrative offices for the team's employees?  Whom should Armond Budish trust, and to what degree, to prevent him from dumping $46 million into the most useless and publicly reviled building in Northeast Ohio?  How would the cultivation of trust prevent the Cleveland Browns, the Greater Cleveland Partnership and the horde of economic development usual suspects from launching the predestined campaign to publicly fund a new or dramatically renovated Browns stadium slash entertainment village, disguised as a public spirited plan to rejuvenate the waterfront?

The public is screaming NO THANK YOU in the face of all this fiscal recklessness and yet our leaders keep doing it. Engagement be damned. This has nothing to do with a lack of trust and everything to do with an economic framework that our leaders regard as inalterable. This framework — crudely: trickle-down economics, subsidizing private enterprise to promote growth —  has created a bifurcated regional economy in which the rich have gotten richer and the poor have gotten poorer. The proof is in the pudding: Residents continue to flee by the thousands and Cleveland is the poorest big city in the United States.

Stop moaning about trust and start reallocating resources.

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About The Author

Sam Allard

Sam Allard is the Senior Writer at Scene, in which capacity he covers politics and power and writes about movies when time permits. He's a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and the NEOMFA at Cleveland State. Prior to joining Scene, he was encamped in Sarajevo, Bosnia, on an...
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