Why is the Cleveland NAACP Supporting the Further Enrichment of a White Billionaire?

click to enlarge Scene's cover 3/1/2017.
Scene's cover 3/1/2017.
In what two black Cleveland City councilmen regarded as "strange," and what local political onlookers regarded as a glum surprise, the Cleveland chapter of the NAACP has endorsed the Quicken Loans Arena renovation deal.

(Not that anyone's support or opposition ever mattered much.)

The deal will contribute public dollars to a massive arena upgrade that will supply few new permanent jobs but will "keep the facility competitive" and will certainly increase the value of the Dan-Gilbert-owned Cavaliers' franchise. The key public benefit is a seven-year lease extension, which keeps the team in Cleveland until 2034. The legislation will likely pass city council next Monday.

The NAACP's chapter president Michael Nelson and Danielle Sydnor, who chairs the economic development committee, presented to City Council's finance committee Monday afternoon. They lauded the Cavaliers as a valued community partner and celebrated the organization's track record of minority hiring. (The Cavs are reportedly among the top five franchises in the NBA in terms of staff diversity, which is indeed commendable.)

But the NAACP was supporting the deal, Nelson said, foremost because the Q is a driver of economic opportunity.

Nelson told council that the only reason the Q deal had become so toxic, the conversation so "apocalyptic," was because 2017 is a mayoral election year. He said it was incumbent upon council to "ignore the usual politics of downtown versus the neighborhoods" and to "focus on the Q as a capital improvements project."

That message was first delivered in a press release last week. The release was provided to Scene by city council, not by the NAACP itself, even after multiple requests. (Update, 12:50 p.m.: The NAACP has forwarded Scene a copy of the release and added Scene to a mailing list.)  In it, the NAACP explained five ways in which the Cavs' and the NAACP's new and enduring partnership would "leverage [the Q deal] into economic empowerment within our local minority communities."

They are as follows:
  • A targeted plan to improve minority business development for purposes of achieving higher supplier diversity spending goals.
  • Specific procurement set aside for minority businesses that expand the current baseline and grows to an agreed upon goal for supplier diversity spending.
  • Increasing outreach and mentoring programs, including the integration of minority culinary businesses into The Q’s Launch Test Kitchen.
  • Membership on the Cleveland NAACP Economic Development Committee by a Cavaliers executive.
  • Hosting of an annual supplier diversity open house and training seminar in conjunction with NAACP and other community partners.
Danielle Sydnor said this would not be a "one-issue partnership," and that the NAACP had every reason to trust the authenticity of the Cavs' commitments demonstrated in their negotiations.

Councilman Zack Reed wasn't buying it. As a longtime member of the NAACP, Reed said that in past negotiations, the NAACP typically demanded a specific number of jobs on projects like these. He wanted to know what they'd negotiated on the construction.

It turns out no specific number had been agreed upon — a surprise to Reed — though Nelson said the Cavs would of course sign on to the city of Cleveland's Community Benefits Agreement. Reed then confirmed that there would be no penalties if the Cavs failed to meet agreed-upon hiring and inclusion goals. As such, Reed invited the NAACP to consider another track record: the trail of broken promises by Cleveland's sports owners.

On that topic, Mike Polensek dropped a memorable line: "The panhandlers on Public Square have more credibility than [the Cavs]" he said.

But the construction project itself was not the NAACP's focus, according to Sydnor.

"The bulk of our concern has centered around what happens after the transformation," she said, adopting the preferred language of the Cavaliers. "How do we ensure diversity and inclusion from those dollars?"

How indeed? Sydnor said that leveraging the project to spur "entrepreneurial opportunities" was key. Entrepreneurship, not wage-paying jobs at the Q itself, would advance and empower local minorities. In the vision of NAACP president Michael Nelson, those entrepreneurship opportunities may include businesses that sell Cavs-themed arm bands or Cavs-themed cakes.

In response to Polensek, who recapped his opposition — the city continues to suffer in the era of stadium subsidies — Nelson said that the NAACP was flipping the traditional script.

"Instead of being guided by history," Nelson said, "we're gonna see how we can flip this thing and be guided by relationships. [The millennial-led economic development committee] has just the kind of energy and dynamic we need. We need to break down the old politics."

Most of us can predict the results. Here in Cleveland, the "new politics" look remarkably like the old.

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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