Without Bernie Moreno, Blockland Cleveland is on Life Support

click to enlarge Without Bernie Moreno, Blockland Cleveland is on Life Support
Courtesy: Blockland Cleveland

Through much of 2018, "Blockland Cleveland" was the talk of the town. Car dealer turned tech evangelist Bernie Moreno launched the initiative with the goal of making Northeast Ohio the "epicenter for all things blockchain." Whether it was his chartered private jet to Toronto, his willingness to devote personal resources to the cause or his unrelenting advocacy on social media, he managed to mobilize what felt like the entirety of Cleveland's public and private leadership into promoting blockchain as a viable economic renaissance strategy.

The momentum wasn't entirely a mirage, either. The Blockland group, with its constituent "nodes," included at one time more than 1,500 members, many of whom attended regular planning meetings and nodular brainstorms and so-forth. There were two iterations of a "Solutions" conference at the Huntington Convention Center downtown, which sought to explore Blockchain's real-world applications and to hype Cleveland as a destination for tech companies. These were generally well-received. 

But after more than a year of Covid, the abandonment of blockchain tech by prominent local start-ups and Moreno's new political adventure, the larger movement is all but dead. Moreno formally launched his campaign for the United States Senate in recent weeks and delegated to another participant the administration of the Blockland Facebook group, where volunteers and tech-curious Clevelanders still share events and blockchain-adjacent news.

Moreno told Scene that he made the decision to pass the Blockland torch for much the same reasons that he resigned from his board seats at MetroHealth and the Greater Cleveland Partnership: to focus on his campaign and to spare the organizations from spatter associated with the 2022 Republican primary bloodbath. In a statement to the Blockland group, he said the decision was about politics.

"Given my decision to jump into the public office," he wrote, "I do not want to let our BlockLand community be tarnished by the divisiveness and vitriol that permeates our current political environment." 

But without Moreno's influence, the online Blockland group quickly lost focus and descended into petty squabbling. It didn't help that the new administrator, JT Thomas, changed the group's name from "Blockland Cleveland" to "Blockland TV Cleveland" soon after he took the reins, a move that few understood or agreed with.

"Please share what TV stands for in this context," one user wrote. "Techno Venture/Technology Vision?"

To the dismay of many, TV simply meant TV — television. Thomas indicated that Blockland Cleveland was going to expand into TV production, among other things. He envisioned local TV programming with a focus on tech. (Thomas declined to comment for this article, but said he might have some information to share about the direction of the group in the near future.) Naturally, a number of the group's active participants were alarmed. 

Steven Santamaria, a tech executive in the region who co-chaired Blockland's original "thought leadership" node, wrote in a comment in one of the many ensuing arguments that he believed the Blockland vision as it existed in its early stages is now dead.

"Yes there are crypto companies, blockchain-based companies and users of bitcoin. But a Northeast Ohio effort to create an economy, to attract blockchain companies to move here, to revamp education ... to create a workforce, to create a knowledgeable economic environment to fund entrepreneurs, etc., is pretty much done."

At a Blockland meeting in 2o18, Santamaria was quoted in this publication as saying that in 10 years, "everything's going to be blockchain." And on Facebook, he said he was still bullish on the technology and hopeful that there will be individual success stories in Ohio, "but creating a regional center of excellence that exports blockchain solutions vs. consuming them is unfortunately unrealistic. Momentum was lost. Opportunity passed."   

Blockland had already contracted considerably from its original 10-node structure. In 2019, Moreno gave a presentation to Cuyahoga County Council in which he unveiled "Blockland 2.0." The group was ceding much of its organizational capacity to a new Innovation coalition, the Cleveland Innovation Project, that included The Cleveland Foundation, the Fund for our Economic Future, the Greater Cleveland Partnership, Team NEO and JumpStart. To avoid redundancy, Blockland would henceforth focus on only three things: the "City Block" revamp of Tower City, the annual Solutions conference, and "engagement," which Moreno interpreted as community building through the Facebook page and events. 

At the time, the City Block project was reported to be a done deal. It would open, Moreno told Cuyahoga County Council, as early as 2020.

But when Scene spoke with Moreno last week, the plan now appears to be much less stable. It's contingent on Bedrock Real Estate.

"It's still something I would love to see happen," Moreno said. "But Bedrock's a big organization with a new CEO. My impression is that they buy into the vision — a center for entrepreneurship in Cleveland's Grand Central Station, for lack of a better analogy, where minority entrepreneurs have an equal shot — but they're asking, is Tower City the best location for that vision? I obviously think it is, but I don't own it, I don't control it. I'm just trying to convince them, and to show them that the community's behind it."

As for the Solutions Conference, Moreno admitted that Covid killed the momentum.

"Hopefully somebody takes that on," he said.

Destination Cleveland, the region's tourism and visitors' bureau, did much of the legwork for the first conference. Back then, the organization's president, David Gilbert, was co-chair of Blockland's "thought leadership" node, alongside Steven Santamaria.

But Destination Cleveland told Scene that they have not been involved with Blockland since before the start of the pandemic, and Gilbert is no longer a node co-chair.

"We can’t speak to future iterations of the Solutions conference as our efforts were concentrated heavily in the year one event," Emily Lauer, Destination Cleveland's Communications Director, wrote in an email. "The conference’s future and that of the effort overall are questions best asked of the individuals who have taken over leadership of the effort with Bernie’s step away."

As for community engagement, the jury's still out. The Facebook group was always somewhat factionalized between those who worked in the technology space and those who merely thought Blockland was a neat idea, and it's unclear if the group's most active participants will still be interested in organizing themselves for future tech-related endeavors and promotions.

Moreno said the Facebook group was a challenge to moderate because the conversation often got filtered though so many voices and perspectives. But he said he hopes that soon, members of the group can meet in person to hash out its future.

"It's easy to throw stones," Moreno said. "It's much harder to be constructive and come up with solutions. What I've always wanted is that Blockland would be a grassroots organization that brings solutions forward."

The elements of the original vision that were transferred to the Cleveland Innovation Project in 2019 have mutated considerably. At the Greater Cleveland Partnership's annual meeting last year, the Project unveiled its vision. It would focus on advocating for universal broadband access and investing in technology and talent in the areas of smart manufacturing, health innovation and water technology.

Elsewhere, civic leaders and the media are gushing over the radical region-defining potential of quantum computing. No less than the editorial board of Cleveland.com and the Plain Dealer said IBM's announced quantum computer would put Cleveland "on the map" in big data and bioscience research.

Here in Blockland, it seems, blockchain is already forgotten. 

Sign up for Scene's weekly newsletters to get the latest on Cleveland news, things to do and places to eat delivered right to your inbox.
Like this story?
SCENE Supporters make it possible to tell the Cleveland stories you won’t find elsewhere.
Become a supporter today.

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...
Scroll to read more Cleveland News articles


Join Cleveland Scene Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.