Follow the Leaderless

Throughout the year, an ominous pall hung over the campaign for a new convention center. Now, after its sudden abandonment, it's clear that the campaign was a metaphor for the city's ills.

The sorry campaign showed a lot about us. It revealed that diversity, civic spirit and all the other words that we spin into speeches are only rhetoric. In fact, we may have altogether lost the concept of community — and with it, our way.

In the past year, the media engaged in an aimless psychoanalysis of our city's troubles. It carefully avoided the central issue that has plagued Cleveland for years: the self-serving, self-absorbed attitude of its people and institutions. This, as much as anything else, has caused the crisis. Can it be that we have become so fragmented that we can no longer function as a community?

No one escapes blame for what has become, frankly, a sham. In my lifetime of observing the city, I have never seen the politics more petty, the divisions greater, the vision dimmer and the leadership weaker than it is today.

Peter B. Lewis, the controversial philanthropist and chairman of The Progressive Corp., touched on this last year when he spoke out against the attitude and ineptitude of civic leadership.

Set aside the issue of a new convention center and focus on the planning and organization that went into presenting a controversial project to a community jaded and jilted by the promises of bond issues past.

One need only study how the city planned and built its present convention center, Public Auditorium, to understand how far our community spirit and common sense have fallen. Eighty-seven years ago, when a bond issue was put on the ballot to build a convention center, the polls were overwhelmed by the largest turnout in the city's history.

The issue, which called for raising $2.5 million, passed by a 4-to-1 margin in a special election. More people voted in the election than cast ballots in the presidential primary that year.

When it was completed in 1922, Public Auditorium was the biggest convention center in America and considered the most modern such facility in the world.

Times have changed. Few vote anymore without large sums of money being spent to gain voter attention and, in most cases, to mislead them with promises and projections that can never be met. Interest groups routinely hold the community hostage.

Go back to 1916 and look at the planning for that campaign. For several years before it went on the ballot, civic, political and business groups quietly worked on the issue.

By the time it was ready to go public, leadership had formalized a group called the Committee of One Hundred, headed by the top advertising executive in town, William Ganson Rose (known today for a ponderous but thorough history of the city).

This committee consisted of 116 associations with a combined membership of more than 200,000. Assembling a group of this size before announcing the project virtually assured success.

The year it opened, Public Auditorium drew 162 conventions, bringing 72,000 visitors and nearly $2.5 million to Cleveland. That revenue alone covered the cost of the building.

Fast-forward to 2003 and compare the planning, execution and civic enthusiasm for a project to replace a building that, in its time, was so venerated that Philadelphia and Atlantic City copied it.

First, the convention center issue was planned for the fall ballot, an election that, in all likelihood, would not attract many voters, low turnout increasing its chances for success.

Cleveland Tomorrow, tasked with the early planning of the center, preferred a new facility built on the mall near the existing building. Yet the business community lacked consensus and the process began to go bad.

With a drop of blood in the water, a feeding frenzy ensued. Every developer and downtown parking-lot owner put forth a plan, each more self-serving than the next (though a few of them were not all that bad).

The reaction was unexpected, as was the confusion it wrought. And few politicians wanted to touch it.

The idea of a convention center ceased being the focal point. In a sense, nobody cared as much about the idea itself as they did about it becoming a payday.

City and county officials quarreled as to how much money would be diverted from the bond issue for other projects in the wards and suburbs. These projects had nothing to do with bringing people to Cleveland to spend money and benefit the community.

Conversely, in other parts of the nation — Pittsburgh, for instance — surrounding counties participate in major projects. Can you imagine voters in Summit and Medina counties being asked to approve a bond issue for a convention center in Cleveland?

All reason was lost when the arts community stepped forward and demanded a piece of the action and appeared willing to settle for pennies. Why would the arts community align themselves with this fiasco when the poets and painters could make a better public appeal themselves?

It seems that only the homeless failed to rally to make their demands.

The failure to plan was underscored in midsummer, when the city and the county locked in argument over who would govern this yet-unbuilt facility, which polls said most people did not want. Each day, the news was more embarrassing for the city than the day before.

The media, picking through the city's crisis as though it were the wreckage of a car bomb, was still trying to figure out why we lose businesses, cannot attract more high-tech jobs or keep our youth from fleeing this civic charade.

The issue of whether we need a convention center was never addressed with any finality. Maybe this was a side effect of the credibility gap created by local leaders, who made promises during the building of Gateway and Cleveland Browns Stadium that now look like lies.

And when civic leaders and politicians, who wanted to promote downtown rather than the region, used a last-minute bill in the state legislature to grab bed-tax funding away from the Convention and Visitors Bureau, it was truly the trademark of backroom political hacks.

Yet the news coverage gave no perspective or depth to these closed-door events.

None of this was lost on the voters, who have become so cynical that many no longer bother to exercise their right at the polls.

By most accounts, the world is a much better place than it was in 1916. But Cleveland was considered one of the great American cities back then, great enough to be recognized for its good government, the best airport in the world, a school system ranked among the best in the nation and an unparalleled charitable spirit.

Cleveland was a city created by bright people, who cared about where they lived and the future of their children. They cared enough to emblazon the following on the edifice of Public Auditorium:A MONUMENT CONCEIVED AS A TRIBUTE TO THE IDEALS OF CLEVELAND.

It would be interesting to know what those ideals are today.

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