Chris Kennedy, the son of the late Robert F. Kennedy and former president of MMPI, is running for governor of Illinois. Since announcing his candidacy in February, the businessman has mined his resume and successes on the campaign trail, but one thing he hasn't mentioned has been the $465 million, taxpayer funded convention center and medical mart facility he was instrumental in bringing to Cleveland.
There's good reason for that, as locals know — four years after its completion, the "med mart" can only be described as a boondoggle and financial albatross (Cuyahoga County taxpayers won't fully pay off the debt until 2027) — but the Chicago Tribune took a deep dive on Kennedy's role in the project to help enlighten Illinois voters.
It's well-trodden territory for Clevelanders, but to recap: Kennedy, along with Toby Cosgrove and former county commissioner Tim Hagan, were the principal architects of the secretive deal. Cosgrove, of course, was at the helm of the Cleveland Clinic; Kennedy and Hagan were family friends with close ties. That cozy relationship and the no-bid contract awarded to MMPI, which would reap huge financial rewards while the county fronted almost all the money and pay bonds back with a sales tax increase, drew criticism but was ushered through in the waning days of the old Cuyahoga County political leadership, just prior to a bunch of them landing in prison. Economic forecasts for its impact were scurrilous then and fully realized now.
“Desperate cities do desperate things,” Heywood Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, told the Tribune. “It didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t seem to make sense now.”
Since its (delayed) completion, MMPI was booted by the county in favor of a new management company (and MMPI failed to deliver millions of dollars it promised to make good on its contract) and the Med Mart has gone through at least three iterations and a name change. Recently, the Global Center for Health and Innovation was basically handed off to BioEnterprise
, a non-profit business accelerator who will be tasked with bringing life to a building whose claims to fame in past years included expanded meeting rooms, a Starbucks and an Au Bon Pain.
The Tribune caught up with some, but not all, of the principal players. Kennedy defended the project, saying that for all its failings, “The entire purpose of all of this was to rebuild the economy in downtown Cleveland — to convert their medical leadership to a tourism economy, to a convention-based economy. And that has largely worked.”
While local leaders would probably disagree with that sentiment — evidenced by the many pivots in leadership and vision at the Global Center — neither Frank Jackson nor Armond Budish granted interviews on the subject to the Tribune. (Cosgrove also denied multiple requests to speak.)
The paper did catch up with Tim Hagan, though. He denied any impropriety based on his relationship with Kennedy and touted the project as one he'd do again, despite its problems:
“The point of what we were trying to do is make the convention facility … more attractive for outside investments to come in for events,” Hagan told the Tribune. “Has it worked out … as much as we thought it was going to work out, immediately? No, I don’t think so. Anybody can second-guess anybody in public life, because, after the fact, you’re a lot smarter than you were when you were going through it. Would I have done it again? Yes, I would have. I think in the long term, it has changed the city and how people perceive the city.”
That generic head-nod to a Cleveland comeback story notwithstanding, the Global Center remains a boondoggle. And there's no better encapsulation of its legacy than the fact current leaders don't want to talk about it and former leaders don't even know or care what it's become.
To wit, from the Tribune's conversation with the former commissioner:
"Hagan said he has set foot in the building only once, and struggled to recall its new name. 'What is it? The World …'"