Tania Menesse had a toddler, a baby on the way and a “good job” in telecommunications products and process management when she decided to change her life completely. She and her husband were living in Denver at the time — and she watched with awe as the city’s downtown was turned into a vibrant place to live, work and play.
“How do I get into this city building and economic development?” she remembers asking herself.
It struck her as work with a clear and important purpose. “I really wanted to be able to explain to my children what I do for a living,” she adds.
They returned home to Northeast Ohio, where she earned her master’s degree in urban affairs at Cleveland State University’s Maxine Goodman Levin School of Urban Affairs.
Now, 15 years later, she can tell her grown children exactly what she does as the CEO and president of Cleveland Neighborhood Progress (CNP). She works to revitalize Cleveland’s neighborhoods.
“We have so much potential to be a great city and, to do that, we have to bring Cleveland’s neighborhoods with us,” she says.
Before joining CNP, Menesse served as the community development director for the city of Cleveland and, in that role, set the stage for her current work by strengthening Cleveland’s two dozen community development corporations.
One of CNP’s current initiatives involves the city’s “middle neighborhoods.” Menesse defines these places as “generally stable, walkable places that never needed any investment before, but, because of the age of housing stock and the people who live in them, need some help.”
Good examples of middle neighborhoods are Collinwood, Lee-Harvard, Old Brooklyn and West Park.
Backed by $10.3 million raised from the city of Cleveland and the state of Ohio with a $22 million goal, CNP is working to prepare buildings for commercial use, create space for outdoor dining, stabilize the housing stock, block predatory investing and incentivize home improvements. It’s the largest investment being made in middle neighborhoods in the country right now, according to Menesse, who has a track record of getting things done.
At a point where it seemed like nobody knew what to do with Shaker Square, Menesse had a plan. In August 2022, CNP — in conjunction with Burten, Bell, Carr Development — bought the retail center for $11 million with the support from the city of Cleveland.
“A year in we have stabilized the square and invested $5 million in capital in the property,” says Menesse, citing “non-sexy” improvements like roofing, HVAC and electrical. “We started programming the Square, and there’s a new website promoting the merchants.”
Everywhere she looks, Menesse sees opportunity — and that’s at least partially due to where she’s from.
Menesse was born in India, lived there till she was 4 and returns frequently to visit her extended family. While so many parts of the country are beautiful, the poverty can be oppressive — and difficult to escape.
“We have every opportunity to change that trajectory in the United States in a way that we don’t in India,” she says.
The reality is we’re all in this together.
“We cannot fulfill the promise of Cleveland if such significant tracts of the city and the people who live in them do not enjoy the opportunity that the rest of the city does,” she says. “A lot of this work is passion for your community and a drive to persist and see the vision for change.”