Despite its economic power in Ohio and across the country, many people in Northeast Ohio seem reluctant to let the city and area take a position as one of the leading metropolitan areas in the nation.
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, Cuyahoga County was ranked in the top one percentile of counties nationally, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. It was also considered one of the 31 most powerful counties in the nation.
With a GDP of approximately $88.7 billion, Cuyahoga County’s economy is larger than 13 states and roughly the size of New Mexico or Hawaii. In terms of GDP, Cuyahoga County is $21 billion in front of Hamilton County, home of Cincinnati.
The county’s economy also is $2.2 billion larger than Franklin County, home to Columbus. That city, which makes up most of Franklin County, is rated as the 15th largest city in the nation in terms of its population. Louisville vaulted into 30th place by simply amending the Jefferson County charter and redefining it as a municipal corporation. Indianapolis, which is now the 14th largest city in America, did the same.
Many major cities across America are doing it, leveraging populations of surrounding communities to increase their national rankings in a process that’s been called UniGov. It’s an effective means of growing a city’s size; creating civic pride while increasing an area’s chance of landing major conventions and events — which will return once the pandemic ends.
“As you can imagine, this has been devastating for tourism in the city,” says Jon Pinney, managing partner of Korman Jackson and Krantz (KJK) and newly named chair of the board of directors for Destination Cleveland. “I am confident, however, that we will come out of this a better, stronger Cleveland. We showed the country and the world what we could do when we hosted the RNC. We will do it again under David Gilbert’s incredible leadership, and we are already working on plans to help restore the tourism economy when this passes.”
So where does Cleveland stand in terms of its national ranking? Where do convention and meeting planners see Cleveland? It’s just below Tulsa, Oklahoma, at 47 and just ahead of Wichita, Kansas, at 49. Those may be fine communities, but do they really compare to Northeast Ohio, which has a population in excess of 3 million including the Akron/Canton area? Do they even come close?
The entire argument could be solved with a simple stroke of a pen amending the Cuyahoga County charter to create a municipal corporation. Under the Ohio Constitution, any municipality having more than 5,000 residents is recognized as a city. If it were to happen, Cleveland would immediately become one of the top 10 cities in the nation.
So why the reluctance on the part of city and county leaders?
As you might expect, it gets a little more complicated before the pen ever sees the paper. Even in Louisville, where the process seemed to be overnight, it was actually a 75-year process wrought with several general election failures.
“If you were the mayor of Cleveland, would you support it?” asks Joseph Roman, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Partnership, one of the nation’s largest metropolitan chambers of commerce. Roman is very pro-Cleveland and pro-Northeast Ohio. But he wants a more measured approach to the region’s growth.
“A thoughtful and deliberate approach to potential government reform is what our tax study has suggested and the county has agreed to participate,” Roman says, adding that a lot more due diligence needs to be done before anyone can even think about amending the charter. “Without any of the hard important work, what do the other 57 municipalities [in Cuyahoga County] do?”
He’s right. The biggest stumbling block to creating such an entity are the municipalities across Cuyahoga County that justifiably fear they will be minimized politically and economically. The same is true of large ethnic segments of the population, who fear they could be marginalized as well.
However, as the world comes out of the current pandemic crisis, there will be change. For starters, Cleveland, as well as Northeast Ohio, may see a dramatic increase in its population later this year.
“Certainly, the whole idea of people getting an education and leaving for other areas will slow way down,” says Bob Smith, a partner in Cerity Partners and market leader of the firm’s Cleveland office. “The whole shock we are experiencing right now may also cause some people to want to come back home. A lot of our native [Clevelanders] who have moved away may want to be in closer proximity to their families, friends and the places where they grew up. We actually saw this same trend after 9/11.”
With many corporations becoming more comfortable with telecommuting and long distance earning during this crisis, it may be possible for more people to have a job in New York or Los Angeles while living in Lyndhurst or Maple Heights.
While a reverse migration may drive the population upward, it would come at a slow pace and certainly not be seen in the 2020 census. The real change has to come in the form of amending the county charter. While there is a reluctance to give up power on the part of municipal entities in Cuyahoga County, the current crisis may cause a change in attitude.
It’s very tempting to look at the change from a top-down perspective and simply amend the charter, Smith notes, “but changes like this needs to be grassroots and driven by necessity.”
Which could also happen. If the situation worsens, there could be municipal entities that are not able to offer core services. Those municipalities would then have to look toward the county or state for help, which would certainly open them up to the idea of creating one large municipal entity.
“Our current situation may be a catalyst for that kind of change, but let’s let form follow substance,” Smith advises. “Let’s create the substance of sharing of services out of necessity, and not by breaking down barriers of