This January, Chris Ronayne took the helm as the third Cuyahoga County executive. He envisions the job to be one of creating what he calls “a new Cuyahoga” for each of the county’s 59 communities.
Ronayne’s agenda centers on four initiatives: new housing starts and funding to repair existing dwellings, seamless public transportation services, workforce development and a focus once again on his passion for waterfront planning by implementing new ideas and refreshing worthy ones stuck in limbo.
“To do this job successfully, you need someone who really understands community development, along with complex budget and service systems and the issue of safety,” Ronayne says. “The County Executive job is about experience, and I bring the broad set of experiences that’s needed to it.”
When the subject of Lake Erie and the Cuyahoga River is broached, Ronayne is quick to recount the fact that we’ve come a long way since that infamous morning in 1969 when the deadly stew that once polluted the Cuyahoga River caught fire.
“I call us ‘the Freshwater Capital of the Great Lakes’ — the place where the river burned and now the river has returned,” he says. “Cleveland Metroparks has done a wonderful job of connecting Edgewater Park to waterfront neighborhoods with the [17-mile] Cleveland Lakefront Bikeway, and with the addition of concessions and a clean beach, there are now reasons to go there,” Ronayne says. “There are opportunities to make parts of our lakefront and river easily accessible.”
In May, Mayor Justin Bibb, the city of Cleveland and the Greater Cleveland Partnership, a coalition of private, civic and public partners working to accelerate and access growth across Greater Cleveland, organized a civic taskforce to revitalize lakefront transformation efforts. The centerpiece of the makeover would be the creation of a proposed land bridge connecting the grassy areas of the downtown malls to the lakefront. Dubbed the North Coast Connector, it would span over the railroad tracks and the Shoreway to provide a pedestrian link to attractions that include FirstEnergy Stadium, The Great Lakes Science Center and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
Other proposed projects on the docket include enhancing Clifton Boulevard in Lakewood and Lake Road in Rocky River with a shared-use trail and scenic overlooks along the mouth of the Rocky River; shoring up the shale cliffs north of Lakewood’s Gold Coast apartment buildings with erosion and control structures topped with a trail; building a 2.7-mile trail along North and South Marginal roads between East Ninth Street and the East 55th Street Marina; and constructing the first leg of a connector trail between Beulah Park and Euclid Beach Park.
“All of a sudden, I think we’ve got this amazing opportunity of projects that really tie the city together in a way that it’s never had an opportunity to be before,” says Debbie Berry, Greater Cleveland Partnership’s senior vice president of major projects and real estate development. “[Right now], if you walk out of a hotel or office building and look around, everything is so disconnected. These [initiatives] being discussed will really provide us with the opportunity to reconnect and re-envision the water’s edge and activities that will help develop the lake itself.”
Cleveland Metroparks has also proposed a Cleveland Harbor Eastern Embayment Resilience Strategy (CHEERS) plan outlining opportunities for additional parkland and habitat along Cleveland’s Lake Erie shoreline in proximity to the St. Clair-Superior and Glenville neighborhoods. The partners are wrapping up the initial concept plan and hope to move toward final design as grants and other forms of funding become available.
“We need to give residents along both the east and west sides of the lake better access points to our waterfront,” Ronayne says. “The city, county, Metroparks and a variety of organizations are working together to make that happen.”
Ronayne has not overlooked the potential that land along the Cuyahoga River affords. In December, Bedrock, the Detroit-based owner of Tower City Center and a stretch of riverfront behind it, unveiled a proposal to develop more than 3.5 million square feet of the downtown Cleveland riverfront that includes 12 acres of public open space lined by new mid- and high-rise buildings containing 2,000 new rental and for-sale homes and 1.4 million square feet of commercial space for hotels, offices, entertainment and retail.
The new county executive understands why all of these plans might be met with more than a little skepticism from those who say they’ve heard it all before. But, Ronayne explains, the city is in “a unique moment in time.”
“We’ve got access to federal and state funding sources we haven’t had access to before,” he says. “And we’ve got experienced partners who’ve come together with intentionality, focus and dedication to make these initiatives happen.”
Getting From Point A to Point B and Beyond
It doesn’t take long to learn that Ronayne is a zealot about public transportation. While earning his master’s in urban planning, design and development at Cleveland State University, he depended on the No.55 bus that stopped near his Bay Village home and the RTA Red Line for his trips downtown.
In his new role, he hopes to “complete those next miles off the RTA line” by transforming neighborhoods into multimodal ones that offer travelers safe, convenient travel by foot, cycle or transit via community circulators.
“Historically, the typical public works [division] of the county has been focused on roads, bridges and sewers,” Ronayne says. “I ran for office on the idea that we should complement that with a Division of Mobility and Infrastructure. People ought to be able to get to and from their grocery store, their doctor or their workplace without getting in a car.”
This concept is particularly relevant given the fact that, according to Ronayne, 13% of driver-eligible residents in Cuyahoga County don’t own a car.
“We did this in University Circle,” he adds. “We said, ‘You don’t have to own a car to live in the city.’ That might mean creating better car- and bike- share programs and finding ways to complement, not supplant, what RTA does.”
Ronayne champions plans to transform Irishtown Bend into a 23-acre waterfront park that will include regional trails designed to connect Ohio City, the Flats and downtown with the Cuyahoga riverfront and Lake Erie.
“It’s exciting to have a former planning director as our new county executive,” says Tom McNair, executive director of Ohio City Incorporated, the community development corporation responsible for promoting the growth of the neighborhood and improving the quality of life for residents.
The state, McNair explains, funds $70 million a year on transit, which is 2% of its $8.3 billion transportation budget. Ohio is seventh in population and 42nd per capita in transit funding, which has resulted in a massive disconnection in terms of the needs of the populace.
“Chris understands that we need to do better for our neighborhoods, and plans on building a coalition to fight for transit funding,” he says. “His goal is to [make] Cuyahoga County one of the most transit- and transportation-connected communities in the United States.”
Ronayne applauds the plan that’s in place for the Lorain Avenue Cycle Track. As part of the Cleveland Midway Project, it transforms 2.25 miles of the four-lane avenue from West 65th Street and into downtown with a multi-modal route consisting of two lanes for vehicles, a lane for parking and bus stops and a 10-foot strip for bikes that’s separated from traffic. The track connects with three RTA rapid stations and several bus lines.
“It will be part of the high-quality infrastructure that allows people to live in a place where they can walk outside their door and connect to wherever they want to go without automotive dependency,” McNair says.
Home Safe Home
Ronayne acknowledges the panic many homeowners experience while trying to keep pace with making crucial repairs to aging domiciles.
To help, he will create a separate housing department headed by a director of housing who’s focused on ensuring residents have access to sources for fix-up funds and affordable housing options. Additionally, new housing will be built in environmentally efficient and energy-responsive ways.
“All of these [steps] meet the triple bottom line of providing sustainable and affordable communities,” he says. “Our housing stock is eroding, and if we do nothing about it, we end up in a downward spiral in our tax base, which then has a dire and relative effect on schools, parks and infrastructure. I heard from people that they want to be able to stay in their homes and affordably maintain them — and that they don’t want to leave their communities. Housing is fundamental to ensuring they’ll be able to stay there.”
Efforts are underway to make those goals a reality at the Cuyahoga Land Bank, a nonprofit dedicated to reactivating and repurposing vacant, abandoned, underutilized and tax-delinquent properties throughout the county.
“Our mission is to help stabilize the tax base through market rate housing and, at the same time, provide affordable housing for low-moderate income individuals and vulnerable populations,” says Gus Frangos, the land bank’s president and general counsel.
Programs to do that include renovating vacant homes for families to reside or invest in; offering construction financing gap grants to experienced developers; accepting donations of homes in serious need of repairs; and assisting investors with acquiring and redeveloping foreclosed commercial, industrial and apartment buildings.
“We’ve seen some of our peer cities like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Columbus and Indianapolis turn a corner,” Ronayne reflects. “And we’re next. What we have that none of those four cities have is the Great Lakes at our front door. We’re at the precipice of an entirely new Cuyahoga County that’s going to be the destination whether you live here now or are coming from somewhere else.”
“I want to leverage what we already have,” he adds, “toward a greater quality of life.”
A Working Plan
Certainly, one of the most important challenges any regional office holder will face is the issue of workforce development. Ronayne is no different. In the past two years, with the help of
JobsOhio at the state level and TeamNEO regionally, our economy has made some great strides. Other organizations such as Our Fund for Economic Development are also making progress. However, Ronayne also sees challenges on the horizon, especially when it comes to educating our workforce.
“When it comes to workforce, I believe we really have everything going for us,” says Ronayne. “We have a strong health care economy. We have a strong manufacturing economy. We have a strong IT and now the new waterfront economy. What we don’t have is everybody ready with the skills to enter the workforce.
“So what I would like to do is to focus on the workforce to give people the skills they need to upskill or retool, to re-enter or grow in the workforce.”
The announcement this past year of Intel’s $20 billion-plus investment in manufacturing operations in New Albany is having ripple effects on our state, regional and county economies. In order to create a high-tech workforce across the state as well as our region, Intel announced earlier this year that it would invest more than $100 million in funding over the next decade to establish semiconductor manufacturing education and research collaborations with universities, community colleges and technical educators.
According to the company, Intel will invest $50 million directly to Ohio higher educational institutions to develop innovative solutions to best support the company coming to Ohio, while further advancing the semiconductor and microelectronics industry by specifically addressing workforce needs.
One of those large grants was given to Kent State, which took the regional lead in extending those funds to 13 educational institutions including many in Cuyahoga County, such as John Carroll University, Cuyahoga Community College and Baldwin Wallace University, among others.
In addition to emerging high-tech workforce labor needs, manufacturing is being transformed in this new century, which is being addressed by organizations such as MAGNET and TeamNeo. Those two organizations, along with over 150 partners, including nonprofit economic-development organizations, education institutions and private and public companies, partnered in 2021 on a blueprint for manufacturing entitled “Make It Better: A Blueprint for Manufacturing in Northeast Ohio.” These partners are building a new vision that brings together the insights of hundreds of manufacturing CEOs, community leaders, business leaders, academics, workers and nonprofit leaders to address the future of manufacturing in the region. The goal is to ready our manufacturing sector to address something called Manufacturing 4.0 in areas such as attracting talent, addressing the workforce of tomorrow, technology transformation, adopting new manufacturing technologies and innovating new products and processes. But these kinds of partnerships also require leadership with people of vision who seek to build partnerships with people in business, nonprofits and government.
“There are also a lot of organizations, like Youth Opportunities Unlimited, that are helping young people enter our workforce, helping with education on the trades and giving our young adults the tools they need to become a more productive member of our community,” he says.
“This is really an all-in approach. It’s about making sure that minority and minority-owned businesses or women-owned businesses are having a chance to grow and have access to capital and supply chains and the emerging clusters of our economy.
“It’s really the focus we have been talking about — leveraging everything, we have a greater quality of life.”