Up From the Basement

If all you know about Warrensville Heights is Filene’s Basement, Mayor Marcia Fudge would like to have a word with you. Since she took office seven years ago, the city has gotten a financial makeover and added successful residential and business dev
If Warrensville Heights mayor Marcia Fudge has her way, the town will be an entirely new place when she finally packs up and leaves City Hall.

For one thing, this comfortable suburb of 14,000 will lure shoppers from throughout the county. They’ll hop in their cars, cruise I-271 and exit at Harvard Road, where they’ll shop at the stores right off the highway and walk over to one of the nearby restaurants for dinner.

The city’s youngsters and families will have a place to hang out: a recreation and community center on the other side of town, near Miles Road. They’ll go there to swim and to work on their homework in the learning lab.

Most importantly, though, the residents will finally be able to brag about the city’s schools, instead of apologizing for them. True, Fudge runs the city, not the school district. But the city can’t prosper unless the schools do, too. She wants to see higher test scores and a more rigorous curriculum. She wants new buildings with better technology.

Yes, Fudge is on a mission to turn a former bedroom community into a vibrant, thriving city.

The mayor of “The Friendly City” greets council meeting regulars with a big smile, a hug and a kiss on the cheek.
Developers don’t get the hug, but they do get the smile and a firm handshake. On the way to her seat, she stops to ask about people’s family and friends. Even then, though, business is in the front of her mind. The conversations are going on, she explains to folks in the meeting room, because it’s only 7:20 p.m. The meeting can’t officially start for another 10 minutes. Once the clock hits 7:30, the talking stops. Fudge bangs the gavel and brings the meeting to order.

Like many of the county’s inner-ring suburbs, Warrensville Heights has its problems.

The roads and sewers are old and inadequate. Fudge must broaden the tax base, so the suburb isn’t dependent on residential property taxes. She needs to keep folks from moving to the exurbs and to lure developers to upgrade the housing stock, almost 70 percent of which was built in the 1950s and ’60s.

And Fudge has to overcome perceptions. Warrensville Heights’ population is 90.4 percent African-American. Cleveland’s only other predominately black suburb, East Cleveland, is mired in decline and corruption. 

“When I started talking to developers about building upscale housing that costs $200,000 and up, they said, ‘Nobody’s going to pay that kind of money to live in Warrensville,’ ” she says. “They didn’t know anything about the city.”

So she’s told them, over and over. Warrensville Heights is a solidly middle-class community. Most of its residents have a high school diploma, and 16 percent have finished college, which falls below the county average but above many of its neighboring communities, according to census figures.

The city itself is open, with 275 acres, almost all of them green fields, available for residential and business development. And the town has an enviable location near Interstates 271 and 480.

Shopping junkies and bargain hunters are already familiar with Harvard Park, the new strip mall in Chagrin Highlands at the Harvard Road exit on I-271. The shopping center, developed by Schottenstein Management Co. in Columbus, includes DSW (a discount shoe store), Bed Bath & Beyond, OfficeMax and a Value City Furniture.

But the coup was Filene’s Basement, in which the Schottenstein family has a stake. The discount outlet chose Harvard Park for its first store in the area, just its second store in the state. The day before the Oct. 26 grand opening, more than 1,000 shoppers reportedly brought their checkbooks to a charity-shopping event. The morning of the actual opening, more than 100 people waited for the door to be unlocked.

All in all, the 230,000-square-foot shopping center will bring an estimated 400 full- and part-time jobs to Warrensville, and raise the profile of a town that was overshadowed by better-known suburbs, such as Beachwood and Shaker Heights.

Those are the accomplishments that the public doesn’t see, Fudge says. “Nobody says anything about the jobs we’ve brought here,” she says. “Nobody says anything about the [Marriott]. If you look, in the last three to five years, we’ve brought in over 1,500 jobs and $300 million in development.”

That includes service-sector positions at the 295-room Marriott, which opened in 2005 as Warrensville Heights’ first full-service hotel. An estimated 400 positions have been added in health care, including about 150 with the expansion of South Point Hospital. 

“If we hadn’t done the other things,” she says, “[Filene’s wasn’t] going to come into a community that they didn’t think was growing.”

In fact, Fudge says, her biggest accomplishment is not the jobs and development. Instead, it’s making residents feel good again about living in Warrensville Heights.

“Our city has really advanced,” says councilwoman Deborah Hill, who has lived in the suburb more than 20 years. She points to two new housing developments: the upscale, single-family homes in the Chateaux of Emery Woods, on Emery Road between Richmond and Brainard, and the Stones Throw, a townhouse development closer to Interstates 271 and 480.

Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones, who is Fudge’s former boss, believes she has restored faith in the city. “In her campaign, she gave people a hope that there could be another vision [for the city],” Tubbs Jones says. “A lot of people were surprised by her leadership and analytical skills, her knowledge of city finances, and where she could go to do what the city needed.”

Tubbs Jones points out another fact. In a county that has 58 cities, villages and townships, Fudge is one of the few women — black or otherwise — who holds the reins of a municipality. Not a bad achievement for a woman who had to be talked into running for mayor.
For decades, Raymond Grabow was synonymous with Warrensville Heights. He spent 31 years as mayor, guiding the city through its tumultuous changeover from a predominately white to a predominately black suburb. The city gained a reputation as a good place to live with a government that provided good services.

Other factors, though, pointed to a creeping decline. Population was slipping, as residents throughout Cuyahoga County left the inner-ring for larger houses with larger yards. The first stops were the cities and towns at the edges of the county, but the exodus continued into Lake, Geauga, Summit and Medina counties.

Warrensville’s population dipped from 18,925 in the ’70s, to 15,745 in the ’90s.

Tony Richison, one of the first blacks to move into the city, saw the for-sale signs and the moving vans and began to worry about Warrensville’s future. But as the city’s fortune slid, he says, Grabow’s administration was too comfortable to make the needed changes.

“The city was stagnant,” Richison says. “There was no housing moving, no nothing moving. We didn’t have community development or economic development.

“We needed a new mayor.”

Richison wasn’t the only one concerned. He was among a group of residents who decided that Fudge would be the perfect person to lead the city into a new era.

Richison and Fudge had worked on Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign. He was impressed with her credentials: degrees from The Ohio State University and Cleveland-Marshall College of Law; two terms as national president of Delta Sigma Theta, the nation’s largest African-American service sorority; administrator for budget and finance under then-Cuyahoga County prosecutor Tubbs Jones.

“We needed a black, qualified person,” Richison says. “We felt she was honest and had the education and compassion needed to turn this city around.”

When the group first approached Fudge, though, she turned them down.

Richison wasn’t surprised. He’d known she wanted to preside over a courtroom as a judge, not run a city.

But in April 1998, Grabow pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of soliciting improper compensation and was forced to resign. City Council president William Pegues served as mayor for 20 months — becoming Warrensville’s first black mayor — but Grabow’s departure had finally opened the way for new leadership.

When U.S. Rep. Louis Stokes retired, Tubbs Jones won election to Congress. Fudge went with her, as chief of staff, but her heart was still here. In 1999, when she was approached about a mayoral bid, she accepted. “It was an opportunity to come home,” Fudge says. “I felt like I could do it.”

From the beginning, she staked the position she still stands on: If Warrensville wants to grow and prosper, it has to reach beyond its borders, forging ties with state and federal leaders.

The Plain Dealer endorsed her, calling Fudge a seasoned administrator with the expertise to oversee the budget “in a town with a primarily residential — some say overworked — tax base.” She won the election and took office in 2000.

Once there, however, Fudge found insularity wasn’t the city’s biggest problem. It was debt. The city had overspent by $500,000, which took a bite out of the cash reserves. Bills from 1999, including payments to the state’s pension funds for police and firefighters, hadn’t been paid.

At the same time, the city lost tax revenue when two major employers, the Cole Vision eyeglass plant and a British Petroleum research center, both left.

And that was the good news.

“The city was in debt, and poorly run with decaying infrastructure,” Fudge says, shaking her head. “The trucks had bandages. The equipment was old and outdated. We had to come in and do a total update.”

And she had to do it quietly, she says, because the residents had been lulled into thinking the city was robust. “The first year, I didn’t tell them how bad it was, because I knew they wouldn’t believe me,” Fudge says.

But she made good on her promise to reach beyond the suburb’s borders. Just months after taking office, she got a $25,000 grant from The Cleveland Foundation to help with the administrative transition. She used the money to study the city’s finance and computer systems, as well as its investment policies.

She came in making unpopular decisions: limiting overtime by police and firefighters; reducing the use of outside lawyers. Eventually she resorted to layoffs. The paucity of tax revenues lingered through her first term when, in late 2004, she laid off eight employees — folks she later rehired — to avoid a projected $1.3 million deficit for the next year.

And then there was Chagrin Highlands, where Filene’s Basement sits today. Development of the property was controversial, to say the least. Although the 630-acre site straddles parts of Warrensville Heights, Beachwood, Orange and Highland Hills, it belonged to the city of Cleveland.

Back in the ’90s, the Richard Jacobs Group bought the land, touting it as a great location for a research and office park. When developers later came back with plans for a mall, the suburban mayors howled bloody murder — and Fudge was among them. The mayors didn’t want retailers such as Wal-Mart and The Home Depot, which occupy huge buildings that could sit vacant for years if the stores closed.

That’s why Cleveland councilman Michael Polensek, who supported the idea of retail at the site, says he feels “greatly vindicated” whenever he passes by Harvard Park. “We took criticism because of the position we took,” he says. “Marcia was one who was whooping on us.” At a meeting with Fudge back in 2000 to discuss the controversy, he recalls, Fudge was adamant, even “obstinate,” about refusing to consider retail.

So what changed her mind? Fudge argues that the Harvard Park stores aren’t big-box retail because they are under 50,000 square feet — the city’s legal definition of a big-box store.

Polensek isn’t buying it. “All of a sudden, what goes in there?” he asks. “It isn’t a Home Depot, no. But if you were to ask anyone, they’ll say these are big-box stores.”

Polensek says Fudge, whom he calls a “good mayor,” has never indicated why she or any of the other mayors switched course. “They change their mind,” he says. “That’s their right.”
Fudge feels she has some solutions in store. She gets excited when she talks about the proposed recreation/community center. She wants to build the facility at the old Zayres Heileg Meyers site — a building that has been vacant for 15 years.

And she’s confronting the city’s foreclosure problem by forming a partnership with Third Federal Bank and Mount Zion Fellowship Church on Northfield Road. The program helps would-be and current property owners maintain the financial security necessary to buy or keep a home.

The biggest obstacle to the city’s prosperity is the school system. The Warrensville Heights School District has been on academic watch, the Ohio Department of Education’s second-lowest rating, since 1998. In the 2005-’06 school year, the district met only six of the state’s 25 indicators of success. 

The problem is on the minds of residents, too. During a council meeting, for example, resident Edward Chambers says he’s worried that the schools are undercutting efforts to market upscale homes to attract new residents.

If the school performance is low, the value of the homes will deteriorate and upscale homes will turn over. “If you have a $250,000 to $300,000 home, and have to send your children to private school, you’re burning the candle at both ends,” he argues.

Fudge blames the schools for the city’s inability to attract families with younger children, even though the city has built 200 new houses and townhouses.

“We’re getting folks in their 50s, whose children are adults, and who don’t have to worry about sending their kids to private schools,” she says.

Elaine Davis, the district’s new superintendent, admits the schools are in trouble.  “There is reason for concern, but I’m optimistic about the progress we’re making in the schools,” says Davis, who was hired as assistant superintendent in 2005 to help improve student achievement. 

That progress includes focusing on teaching reading and writing, so that students must continuously practice and improve in those areas. And the district is considering extending its school day.

But Davis knows residents won’t believe the district has improved until they see it on the state’s report card. She’s confident that change is coming. Last year, she notes, the district met three more state indicators than the year before.

“The school system helps bring in new families,” says Davis, who regularly discusses the issue with Fudge. “The schools will improve, but it will not turn around overnight.”

Attracting young families is a major issue in the city, which is still losing population. According to the 2005 U.S. Census estimate, the suburb has roughly 14,200 residents — a figure that Fudge claims is low by 1,500 people.

So the woman who means business is rolling up her sleeves. If she wins a third term when she runs this year, Fudge promises that improving the schools will be her top priority. “I’m willing to do a taxpayer uprising if necessary,” she says.
“I’m ready to take on all comers.” 
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