Planning Ambition

As part of the campbell administration, Chris Ronayne envisioned a glorious new Cleveland. now he’s working on his big ideas as the president of University circle inc. ­—­ and pondering a run for mayor. But does he have what it take
Chris Ronayne grimaces as he looks down at his watch. He’s already late for a meeting. He smiles and leaves his coat in the car even though a biting wind whips through downtown.

We’re standing at the northern edge of Cleveland’s biggest unfinished project: Burnham Mall, the blocks-long plaza started more than a century ago and surrounded by City Hall, Public Hall, the library and some of downtown’s most attractive government buildings. When Ronayne was Cleveland’s planning director, and later chief of staff for Mayor Jane Campbell, it seemed a foregone conclusion that it would finally be completed.

“So this is where we wanted to build the convention center,” he says. He sweeps his hand over the cliff, as if he’s erasing the drop-off and the void between downtown and the lonely Rapid Transit station at East Ninth Street. He fills in the emptiness with a beautiful modern building, which extends into a renovation of the current, antiquated convention center underneath the Mall. “It would allow walking access from here, connecting downtown further to the Rock Hall, Cleveland Browns Stadium and, of course, the lake.”

Ronayne explains things in a way that draws you into the plan. His excitement is catching: You’re not only sold, you’re wondering what you can do to help.

He adds pedestrians to the picture. Downtown workers enjoy their city’s waterfront alongside out-of-towners here for a conference. The waterfront is bustling.

This idea sounds vivid, real and exciting. But it’s also one of the biggest reasons Chris Ronayne is no longer working in City Hall.

The political sands shifted for Ronayne and the Campbell administration when they pushed this plan over Forest City’s proposal for a convention center on its land behind the Terminal Tower.

And now he stands here, frustrated that the convention center talks have started anew.

This is unfinished business for Ronayne. He sees more examples all over town — such as connecting the Battery Park development more completely to the shoreline. He says the city needs more leaders willing to take a chance and dream bigger. And Ronayne may just be that guy.

Political leaders say they’ve heard speculation that he may run for mayor in 2009. But as head of University Circle Inc., the development corporation for Cleveland’s one square-mile cultural hub that includes the Cleveland Museum of Art, Severance Hall, its own police force and a $7.5 million annual budget, such expectations are almost part of the job description. Similar talk surrounded his predecessors Terri Hamilton Brown, who is director of corporate diversity at National City Bank, and David Abbott, who now heads the Gund Foundation.

Abbott was constantly asked if he would run for mayor once he took the job at University Circle Inc. “It’s a parlor game of sorts,” he says.

Ronayne acknowledges that he’s been thinking about it.

“If the time ends up being right to seek that office, I’ll seek it,” he says. “I truly love this city, and I think it’s better than the reputation it has. I want to serve it in the best way I can.”

But could a guy like Chris Ronayne run Cleveland — a big city with small-town politics? In the past, Ronayne was unwilling to play by the city’s unwritten but well-known rules. He’s got an ambitious vision, just like Daniel Burhnam —the legendary architect who designed the Mall. But is it too big for Cleveland?

One of the major criticisms of the Campbell administration was that while it came up with a strong plan, it couldn’t execute. If Campbell was a visionary who could only present a great city on paper, then Ronayne was the one who drew up those ideas.

Ronayne says he’s not the same guy now as he was back then, naïve about politics. He’s not just a dreamer. He’s a doer, he says, and the proof of that lies in projects at University Circle.

But as he walks back to his SUV, he says his plan for the convention center is still solid. He’ll argue the same to public officials later in the week, as the debate over the fate of the convention center rages on.

Tonight he’ll have to cut the evening short. Forest City, ironically enough, has asked him to join a few other power brokers in town to help woo a business to Cleveland.
As a kid, Ronayne took the bus to downtown Chicago with his dad to walk around and look at the skyscrapers. The big attraction was the new Sears Tower, which was built a few years after Chris was born in 1968.

When Ronayne was 9, the family moved to Northeast Ohio. Ronayne’s mom has told a story that when they arrived, he looked out over Lake Erie and proclaimed, “I love this city!” He doesn’t quite remember it that way: It was Public Square he was looking over, not the lake, when he made his proclamation.

Either way, this has been his city ever since. At 16, he sold ice cream out of a pushcart to downtown workers and Tribe fans. The Bay High School graduate went to Miami University in Oxford before returning to Cleveland to get his master’s of urban planning at Cleveland State.

He took a job working at the Cuyahoga County Planning Commission and eventually moved over to work with county commissioner Tim McCormack.

Fellow commissioner Jane Campbell took notice of Ronayne, whose style clashed with the feisty McCormack. “He and commissioner McCormack weren’t going to make it, and I wanted to give him a chance,” Campbell says. “I really believe in giving young talent opportunities.”

He excelled at everything she threw at him, from helping create a work and transit program for the poor to representing Campbell with many community groups, Campbell says.

Now and again, Ronayne, who quickly makes friends and lets go of them slowly (if ever), would swing back by his old office in the planning commission.

And at his old desk, which still had his pens and pictures on it, a cute part-time staffer had planted herself: Natalie Saikaly.

Natalie says you couldn’t help but pay attention to Ronayne. Everyone wanted to talk to him, to shake his hand, to say hello. “I said, ‘I’ve got to know this guy.’ ” she recalls.

He would find excuses to chat with her, attempting to arrange a lunch, but something always got in the way. About six months in, he put together a softball game between the planning commission and county commissioner staffs. “I organized the whole thing trying to catch up with her,” Ronayne says.

Group outings always seemed to end with her leaving early to take care of her dog, Dakota. Finally, though, he convinced her to go to lunch. Then, a year after they first met, they went on their first date to Scrooge’s Nite Out, one of the city’s most well-known fundraisers.

“There were probably 1,000 people there,” Natalie says. “He probably knew 999 of them. He showed enough interest in me, he danced with me, he made sure I had a fresh beer and introduced me to everyone, but he didn’t smother me.”

That night they had their first kiss on Public Square.

Ronayne and Natalie quickly became an item — though Natalie is quick to point out Ronayne won Dakota’s heart faster than her own. She was a tough sell.

Meanwhile, something unexpected happened in the Cleveland political scene.

On a spring day in 2001, Ronayne was walking across the street from City Hall, back to the county building, when Cleveland City councilman Jay Westbrook stopped him. “Did you hear?” he asked Ronayne. “Mike White is not running for re-election.”

With White out, it would be a wide-open race.

Ronayne found Jane Campbell.

“Did you hear Mike White isn’t running?” he asked. “I’m in if you’re in.”

Campbell wanted a few days to take stock. Two months later, she hired Ronayne as campaign manager, even though he knew nothing about running a campaign. Campbell says she never regretted the decision. “He had qualities I desired: I could trust him. He was good with people. He had an incredibly good work ethic, and he believed in me.”

A campaign strategist said Ronayne needed to find a way to see his girlfriend more often, since he was working from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. just about every day. Campbell knew she wanted Natalie on staff as well. Natalie was initially offered a job as her scheduler, but turned it down on Ronayne’s advice. (“It is thankless, grueling and miserable.”) Campbell then offered her a campaign fundraising job. Before this, Natalie had never raised a nickel. She accepted and raised more than $1 million in four months. Campbell won the election, making Ronayne a winner, too.

“If we hadn’t worked together, the likelihood of us making it through together, it would have been slim,” Natalie says. “I would have always been resentful not getting enough of his time. This way, we had the same goals and time schedule. We ate at the same time every night, which was midnight, but we were together.”

Jane Campbell was the first person, outside of Ronayne’s mother, to ask when he was going to marry Natalie. Shortly after the election, Campbell had her driver stop the car on the way to their campaign headquarters. She was busy, maybe busier than before the election, but guided Ronayne into Howard Beattie’s jewelry shop to look at engagement rings.

Ronayne was nervous, but a month later he bought a ring and proposed. He and Natalie were married a year later.

When Campbell took office in January 2002, she hired Ronayne as her planning director. It was another huge step. The mayor’s husband, Hunter Morrison, held the slot for two decades. Ronayne’s youth and inexperience made it controversial.

He headed up huge projects, including the ambitious Lakefront Plan, a vision for eight miles of shoreline that includes larger beaches, new marinas, and housing, retail and office projects, all connecting neighborhoods more closely to the lake. That plan came out of more than 100 public meetings and input from everyone who cared to give it.

City councilman Matt Zone says the push for the Lakefront Plan showed the best and worst of Ronayne. “He likes to look at things and figure out how he can make them better,” he says. “Chris’ strength has always been that he is very warm and friendly, and that came through here. But the thing I appreciate about him most is even if his opinion is not your own, he knows how to communicate it in a way that is not offensive.”

But the Lakefront Plan was so huge and ambitious, it made people uncomfortable. “People like to see something deliverable,” Zone says. “Sometimes when you’re in the role of city planner or chief of staff, you’re the biggest cheerleader. Looking back, he could have underpromised and overdelivered.”

But that’s not Ronayne’s style. He doesn’t talk about Cleveland making a “comeback.” No way. He envisions Cleveland becoming better than it has ever been.

Ronayne left the planning job in January 2005 to become Campbell’s chief of staff. City planners are not typically fired when a new mayor is elected, but all mayors hire their own chiefs of staff. He left the job security for a more political position, in part, he says, so he could oversee the Lakefront Plan’s execution now that it had approval.

Ronayne also shepherded into creation Steelyard Commons, the suburban-style strip mall on the near West Side. Campbell says as politicians were blasting Wal-Mart, he was talking to the developer, explaining the local politics and keeping the superstore from bailing under criticism.

He helped coordinate the city’s efforts with the Euclid Corridor Transportation Project, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of this year.

Then, Campbell lost her re-election bid in November 2005, and Ronayne took the job as president of University Circle Inc. six days later.

But his time as chief of staff changed him. He says he now is a legitimate leader. “I maybe wasn’t that guy as a planning director. I was in the world of what could be. When I became chief of staff —it was a baptism of fire into the world of what is .”
It’s easy to question whether Ronayne is actually as genuine as he seems. It just doesn’t seem possible that everything about him, even his relationship, screams Cleveland. You have to assume some of it is for show. But the more you talk to them, the more you’re convinced it’s not.

I meet up with Ronayne and Natalie at their Cudell-Edgewater home, a modest blue bungalow with a carefully landscaped lawn — Natalie heads the Cleveland Botanical Garden, so it has to look good.

Paintings from Cleveland artists depicting Cleveland scenes decorate the walls. The big one in the living room depicts the West Side Market, which Natalie oversaw when she was in charge of Cleveland parks. (Ronayne says Natalie wasn’t a huge fan when he bought the painting because it was a reminder of work. He seemed oblivious that she might want to forget about work.)

Another one, in the dining room, reflects the Public Square of Ronayne’s childhood— filled with hustle and bustle. The traffic cop in the painting is the father of the artist, he says.

Maps showing Cleveland in different stages of development hang on other walls. His bookshelf is littered with Cleveland authors.

Their Christmas tree? Bought from a guy in West Park. Presents under the tree? All bought in local Cleveland shops.

Now come on, right? This can’t be real.

And Natalie is at least as passionate about the city. “I could never spend an hour and a half away from my kid, or my husband, or my hobbies, or my friends because I’m sitting in my car,” she says. “Move closer to your job! There is so much to do in this limited time on earth, why would you sit in a car?”

Ronayne prods her along. You can tell he gets a kick out of this. “Tell him about the shirt!” Natalie has a T-shirt that says, “I will never live in the suburbs.” It’s not that she doesn’t like life outside Cleveland. She grew up in Ashtabula County. Her folks still live there, and she loves visiting the countryside. “I just want there to be city and country,” she says. “The way I’ve seen development happening, there’s just this vast invasion of the in-between.”

And for her, she wants the city life: “I really appreciate the diversity. I didn’t meet my first gay friend until I went to college. I didn’t meet my first black friend until I went to college. That’s not something I want my kid to grow up with.”

And any kids they have, they hope to send to Cleveland public schools. One reason they chose their neighborhood was the nice school. And they’re not just speaking in hypotheticals. The Ronaynes are expecting their first child.
Ronayne cruises University Circle in his Jeep like he grew up there.

The development corporation Ronayne runs, University Circle Inc., is not like most in town. Of course, it woos developers and businesses, retains those who are there and performs all the normal functions, but it does so much more. It runs its own police department. It helps bridge relationships between some of the most important institutions in town, such as the museums, The Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall, and the Botanical Gardens (which Natalie heads).

It’s a big deal.

University Circle used to be called uptown, in acknowledgement that it was as important as the skyscraper-filled downtown district (and a tad more classy).

Whoever is in charge of UCI, as it’s called, is a power broker of some magnitude, and often talked about in terms of future ambition, including mayor. It seems like a perfect training ground.

Ronayne obviously is passionate about this neighborhood.

He points to a house that used to be part of the underground railroad. (Well, local historians think it was part of the railroad. Ronayne also explains the lack of documentation, why the documents don’t exist and what evidence he believes is most convincing.)

Down another street, Hessler Court, he has me open the door to look closer at the road. It’s wood — the only street like it left in Cleveland.

As we pass a woman walking a dog, he tells me the dog’s name (Oscar) and that I met the woman’s husband earlier.

Ronayne seems to remember everyone’s name. And even at 6-foot-4, he’s approachable with a smile on his face and a cup of Arabica coffee that’s often in arm’s reach. He talks in a way that you’re sure he’s listening.

Case in point: Earlier in the day, someone had complained about the walkway around Wade Oval not being shoveled. As he drives past it, he remembers. He picks up his BlackBerry to make a quick call to get it taken care of.

We pass Park Lane Villa, a rehabbed 1920s luxury hotel being converted into apartments. “If you don’t mind, I want to swing by and meet the new general manager,” he says. The owner seems thrilled that he brought a Cleveland Magazine writer by, hoping to get a mention in the article. (You’re welcome.)

Ronayne points to new condos and townhomes being built, the first new housing construction in decades. Plans for more than 1,000 new homes are now under way.

He shows me the surrounding neighborhoods, explaining how people who were once pushed away now walk to the Circle. But he laments that much more needs to be done. Historically, UCI was considered part of the reason the poor, mostly black neighborhoods were separated from the Circle. In the past several administrations, though, that attitude appears to have made a 180-degree turn.

The transition into the Circle from downtown is improving as well. In under a year, University Circle Inc. raised $7 million in private donations for Euclid Avenue improvements between East 105th and East 120th.

This, the Bring Back Euclid Avenue Campaign, is a big piece of University Circle’s master plan. But not all the plan is going smoothly. The long-discussed “Opportunity Corridor,” a proposed road from I-490 to the Circle, has just as many roadblocks as it did when first proposed.

Ronayne also talks about moving the RTA Rapid train stop down to Mayfield Road, providing easy access to Little Italy and the Circle as if it’s a done deal, but plans are far from solid.

Other challenges, though, have arisen and been addressed.

We swing by the University Circle Police Department. Not long ago, the department was facing demise, but Ronayne made it a priority to save it. In addition to Cleveland Police, three departments patrol the area: University Circle Police, Case Western Reserve Police and Cleveland Clinic Police, making it one of the most patrolled areas in Cleveland. Ronayne saw cruisers at a church that morning, and he wanted to make sure everything was OK. (It was just a tripped alarm.)

This is the kind of checking in mayors regularly do. Unprompted, Ronayne brings it up himself. “Sometimes I feel like a mayor of a mini-city,” he says. “The Circle is a microcosm for what the rest of the city can be.”

Even people who have clashed with Ronayne preface any comments with compliments. Don’t misunderstand, they may not agree with him on everything, but they say he’s a good guy.

Councilman Westbrook, who lives across the street from Ronayne scuffled with him over the Lakefront Plan’s elimination of on-ramps to the western Shoreway. Westbrook believes it will back up local roads and make the easy commute a hard one, while Ronayne believes the on-ramps will encourage fast traffic on what is supposed to become a more leisurely, scenic road. Westbrook called him a “meddler” in March after he came to a planning meeting on the subject.

Before he talks about the project, Westbrook says Ronayne is “energetic, a hard worker and committed to this city.”

But Westbrook, like many Cleveland politicians, wonders if Ronayne really has what it takes politically to pull off a run for City Hall.

Councilman Michael Polensek, a longtime and vocal member of council, says Ronayne’s naivety of Cleveland politics showed through with the convention center project by ticking off Forest City.

“A small, select group of people call the shots in this town,” Polensek says. “This was much broader than Ronayne, but if there’s any criticism to be leveled against him or the previous administration, it’s this: They did not understand the street politics and hardball politics of this city. They were looking at it with rose-tinted glasses and didn’t understand the political dynamic.

“When they opposed the construction of the convention center on Tower City, that’s when those corporate elements lined up against her. Most insiders could see her Lakefront Plan was never going to take off,” Polensek says. (Polensek’s name is also bandied about as a potential mayoral candidate, though he wouldn’t say much about it.)

Councilman Matt Zone says it wasn’t the decision, but the way Ronayne and the rest of the Campbell administration went about it that really hurt them. “Forest City is a significant stakeholder in this city,” he says, “and you can’t ignore that. He should have engaged Forest City in a conversation where they didn’t feel threatened by the existing site. I’m not sure that conversation occurred.”

Forest City officials did not respond to a request for an interview on the topic.

Zone says he looks at Ronayne as having “the makeup to be a public servant.” But, when you look at the whole picture, it’s not that simple. “It would be very difficult for Ronayne to be elected mayor of this city,” he says.

In part, Ronayne doesn’t have strong enough ties in the non-white communities, Zone says. When Ronayne talks about his vision for University Circle, he talks just as much about the surrounding neighborhoods, which are generally poor and black. And while this means he is doing positive things in neighborhoods of the racial majority of this city, that’s a far cry from building a constituency.

Ronayne says he thinks too much is made of race in Cleveland. In his experience, young black men and women think beyond race. The best candidate, regardless of race, is more likely to get their vote.

Dan Moore, a millionaire who pondered a run for mayor at one time, too, says someone like him, white and with little name recognition, would have a tough time. He ran polls, assuming he spent about $3 million on a campaign. They showed he had only a 40 percent chance of winning.

But here’s another oddity. Moore openly clashed with Ronayne over development of Whiskey Island. But Moore says he actually really likes Ronayne. They once played volleyball late into the night on Whiskey Island. Moore says he’d hire him in a minute to be a salesman for one of his companies.

Ronayne would be undoubtedly connected to Jane Campbell’s faults. Ken Silliman, Mayor Frank Jackson’s chief of staff, complimented Ronayne’s enthusiasm and inclusion of public input, but says Jackson likes to judge by results, and maybe that’s a better way to look at Ronayne. A great, underfunded plan for the lakefront is his biggest legacy. “I don’t think you can separate Chris’ time with the Campbell administration with the Campbell administration’s record overall,” he says.

This may be a foreshadowing of how a Jackson-versus-Ronayne campaign could go. Ronayne might complain about the lack of progress on projects that Jackson didn’t complete. Jackson might point to his accomplishments and contrast that to all that Campbell did not deliver.

Maybe most importantly, it’s all about timing. Mayor Frank Jackson is still a fairly strong incumbent. Some politicians, such as Polensek, have described him as “fragile.” Until recently, his only major criticism was not stepping out as a strong voice for the city in times of adversity. Is that enough for voters not to give him another four years? Especially considering he said he wouldn’t be an in-the-spotlight mayor when he ran.

And Jackson still has time to silence critics. Last month, he announced a tough war on crime, which drew fire, but also had plenty of supporters. This term is far from over.
A few weeks into reporting this story, another writer at the magazine got a phone call from a Cleveland political insider who asked my colleague if I was drinking the Chris Ronayne “Kool-Aid.”

Ronayne’s optimism seems to grate on people. I’m not sure if that’s because they think it’s unrealistic or insincere. But it goes to show just how small the political circles are in Cleveland. There’s always an angle. There’s always someone paying attention.

But there is something about Ronayne that makes people take notice.

Ronayne walks into Cleveland City Hall, hitting the End key on his BlackBerry and sliding it into his holster. He’s always doing something. Walking from his car to the door means he can check voicemail, return a message or type an e-mail.

Today he has a meeting with an advisory committee for the mayor. He is hoping to get support for replacing the confusing, faded signs in University Circle with new, modern ones.

He’s well aware visitors to the Circle are regularly lost, and he hopes these new signs will help. When coming up with a new slogan for the circle’s marketing campaign, he found the idea, “Get Lost In The Circle” hilarious, but he knew the board of trustees would never go for it. He settled on “Find Yourself In The Circle.” But the “Get Lost” slogan hangs in his office on a piece of copy paper.

He doesn’t go back to City Hall often, and when he does, he usually sneaks in the back door. Today is the first in a while that he walks in up front. He’s noticed immediately.

Everyone swarms him: security guards, women in carefully tailored suits and men with their names stitched on their chests.

It takes him five minutes to walk the 200 feet to the elevator, where he bumps into two more people he knows.

On the elevator, a man leans in close. He’s wearing a building department shirt.

“You’re still on your hiatus over in University Circle?” he asks.

Ronayne smiles, “Yes. I’ve been over there two years now.”

“You’ll get back,” the man says. “You’ll get back.”
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