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Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Congrats Cleveland! We've Reached Consensus: Invest in Public Transit, Stop Investing in Pro Sports Facilities

Posted By on Tue, Dec 4, 2018 at 2:36 PM

click to enlarge The people want better public transit. - SCREENSHOT / REMESH
  • Screenshot / Remesh
  • The people want better public transit.

BLOCKLAND — When Cleveland.com editor Chris Quinn invited City Club CEO Dan Moulthop to pose a question about tax priorities to the 85-ish participants of a Monday online poll, it was difficult to imagine a less productive or more redundant pursuit.

On the digital platform Remesh, a real-time polling software that began as a promising start-up in Cleveland, (and was in fact so promising that it relocated to New York City, where tech talent was in immediate supply), remote respondents had been answering questions about the region and its challenges for the previous half-hour.

As in prior conversations of this sort, strong themes emerged and recurred immediately: Cleveland's leadership was a barrier to the region's success, the respondents said, (nothing new). Young people and new ideas gave them hope. The top answer to the question, "What is your biggest concern about the region's future?" was: That we will continue to do the same old thing and not innovate. That the same people will remain in power and not listen to new voices. (Again, these are all echoes of recent appeals.)

(The poll's full results can be viewed here.)

But the most consistent theme was that greater investment in public transit is necessary to improve the region. It would attract more people and connect residents to jobs, respondents believed. Remesh allows for open-ended answers, and variations on "public transit investment" were either the most popular or among the most popular answers to every question about public investment and regional priorities that Moulthrop posed.

The public transit responses were so popular, in fact, that Quinn and Moulthrop, who were providing live commentary during the poll on Facebook, started joking about their prevalence. Quinn twice said he wondered if RTA employees were all participating in the poll on their lunch breaks. Quinn reiterated comments he's made recently that public transit investments are a gamble, because in a few years "public transit" might not exist as we know it. It might be a fleet of autonomous vehicles! And in any case, how would we pay for it? (The obvious quip: There was no trouble locating millions of public dollars for the Q. Why not use that model?????) Through the pixels of my computer screen, I could almost see the respondents rolling their eyes when Moulthrop asked: "How should investments in public transit be paid for?"

The polling was anonymous, beyond basic demographic information, so it's unknown who the participants were. But the most noteworthy aspect was their low overall number. When Moulthrop asked what additional questions leaders should consider, one of the more popular answers was, "Why did only 85 people show up for this important convo?" In earlier coverage, the poll was publicized as having the capacity to support 1,000 participants and was marketed as an opportunity to generate material for leaders as they continue to shape economic development strategy, or at the very least host summits about it for the next several months / years / decades.

The low turnout was clearly a letdown for both Quinn and Moulthrop. They suggested they might try to to host another session in the near future. Though why anyone would participate, given the utter disregard by leaders for the actual concerns and priorities of residents, remains unclear.

For example, public transit was obviously a top priority for those who participated. Why on earth would Quinn feel the need to ask the participants what they'd rather have their taxes raised for: world-class public transit or pro sports facilities? Was this a joke? The question was totally unnecessary. Consensus had not only been approached — the goal of these conversations, supposedly — but wholly formed. The question directly preceding it had asked how pro sports facilities should be paid for, and the most popular answer was, "By the teams and the owners." All of the top answers were more or less identical.

Predictably, then, 98 percent of respondents said they'd prefer to pay increased taxes for public transit. That means that only one of the 53 people who answered voted for Pro Sports Facilities.

Here's another consensus: People hate Burke Lakefront Airport and would like to see the lakefront re-imagined with publicly accessible green space. A question about Burke had not been planned, per Quinn, but Facebook comments inspired them to ask about lakefront priorities. All the top responses involved getting rid of Burke or increasing public access and/or recreation.

And here's the important part. After seeing the responses — a clear consensus — Quinn said he suspected getting rid of Burke just wouldn't be possible because it's a no-go for the corporate community.

Well now! This admission reveals an underlying truth: that these conversations, however well-intentioned, do not matter unless the consensus that is approached agrees with the consensus of the region's corporate leaders. Local attorney Rebecca Maurer, who created the SerialLand blog, wrote a letter to Crain's this week suggesting that if an upcoming economic development summit is truly meant to be inclusive — as it's continually promoted as being — then it ought to include members of the community (go figure) and not just existing leaders and their private networks.

That letter followed on the heels of commentary by Crain's editor Elizabeth McIntyre, who noted that only two of the 15 civic leaders coordinating the upcoming effort are female. 
You can't throw around words like 'inclusion' if you aren't holding yourself to that very standard, and the best place to start is by looking at who is, and who isn't, seated at the table with you.

This very issue was brought up in the first question asked of Pinney during his City Club speech, in which he named eight people he thought could lead the effort. The questioner pointed out all the people he named were white men.

Pinney agreed that was a problem, saying "that needs to change completely. It needs to be an inclusive process."

How is it then, fewer than six months later, a group formed partially in response to Pinney's speech — and which Pinney is a part of — is so lacking in female representation?

The group said it will include representatives at its December planning session from "a diverse range of companies, organizations and government entities, as well as up-and-coming and not-often-heard voices."

That's a start, but it feels less than inclusive when the core group — the ones ultimately making the decisions — doesn't reflect the broader community.

Leaders can talk about inclusion all they want — as it happens, one prominent civic leader told me at the Blockland Solutions Conference this week that I have no idea how hard it is to find diverse members of the community to participate in these things — but the truth is, they have no interest in a truly inclusive process because they know they wouldn't like the results. It would mean changing how things are done, redistributing not only wealth but power.

And this all means one thing for Cleveland and its emergent economic development strategy: Notwithstanding some potentially new bells and whistles, it's likely to be business as usual. 

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