Progress and opportunity never come easy, especially in disadvantaged neighborhoods. It’s even tougher when local and state governments, nonprofits and private institutions come to loggerheads over issues involving that progress — even when all parties involved have a project’s best interests at heart. That’s when true community leadership is needed.
The Opportunity Corridor, a $330 million, three-phase highway project building a boulevard extending from I-490 at East 55th Street to East 105th Street, has been described as “a road to progress.” But it’s also become a “road of contention” between the City of Cleveland and the State of Ohio.
Last spring, the city decided to withhold $3.1 million in funds from the final two phases of the Opportunity Corridor to protest what it called “the state’s dilution of minority hiring goals” by at least 20 percent. It led to an impasse between the city and state that delayed Phase II.
Phase I is widening East 105th Street from just north of Chester Avenue south to Quincy Avenue. Now, with that phase nearing completion in fall 2017, there appears to be a thaw on the horizon — at least in the relationship between the city and state.
“The Ohio Department of Transportation remains confident that the Opportunity Corridor project will be completed to the satisfaction of all involved,” says Myron Pakush, deputy director of Ohio Department of Transportation District 12. “This $330 million project is vital to the neighborhoods it serves as well as those who will use it every day. The goal is to increase employment and economic opportunities in the local community.”
Construction has begun on the $35.2 million Phase II, with the contract awarded to Great Lakes Construction Co., the same firm working on the Innerbelt project and West Shoreway. That will take the roadway from Phase I on East 105th Street south and west to East 93rd Street, and reconstruct portions of East 93rd and East 105th streets and Quincy and Quebec avenues.
Along the boulevard’s path, the Opportunity Corridor is being championed by nonprofit neighborhood partners that include Buckeye Shaker Square Development Corp.; Burten, Bell, Carr Development Inc.; the Fairfax Renaissance Development Corp. and Slavic Village Development, among others. It’s a key project on the Greater Cleveland Partnership’s radar as well.
“The Greater Cleveland Partnership continues in its role as a civic partner and community stakeholder for the project,” says Joe Roman, president and CEO of the organization, which leads the efforts of the Opportunity Corridor Steering Committee and subcommittees. “We work closely with our public, private community and civic and philanthropic partners.”
The GCP’s role throughout has always been multi-faceted, explains Roman.
“While we continue to work on the financing and construction of the boulevard itself, the priority focus has always been on how we can work with all the partners to drive comprehensive and inclusive economic, business and community development activities in these neighborhoods and for the residents located in the project area,” Roman says.
Many neighborhood nonprofits already have invested heavily, leveraging the construction against property acquisition and redevelopment. They are concerned with the project’s delays.
“I am frustrated that there has been about a year of this impasse between the city and state,” says Christopher Alvarado, executive director of Slavic Village Development, which has acquired property and is leveraging investment in the area. “Having this delay does not lend itself to stabilizing this neighborhood. We need to go that extra mile to ensure we build stability and access to jobs.”
It’s a goal shared by other neighborhood nonprofits that have stepped up efforts to make sure the state meets its minority hiring goals.
“Whether you support it or not, it is an opportunity to leverage a multimillion-dollar investment,” says Denise Van Leer, executive director for the Fairfax Renaissance Development Corp. “The important thing is to make sure that persons who live in the neighborhoods that the road goes through benefit from its construction.”
Neighborhood organizations such as Burten, Bell, Carr Development and Fairfax Renaissance have taken active steps in the past few months to ensure the state has a pool of qualified candidates for employment on the project. An ODOT grant is helping Fairfax to reach out in Opportunity Corridor neighborhoods to recruit, identify, screen and get persons ready for employment opportunities as part of a workforce program. Ohio Means Jobs received a grant to provide training and supportive services for neighborhood residents as well.
Fairfax has partnered with Great Lakes Construction to help identify and recruit minority companies and candidates for possible employment and/or contractual opportunities for the roadway, says VanLeer. The construction firm hired consultants with whom Fairfax is working for community outreach and education.
“And Great Lakes, as a part of its contract, is also holding career-awareness workshops and job-readiness workshops to inform potential companies and employees how to network in the transportation construction industry,” VanLeer adds.
Those efforts, as well as others, may have tipped the scale toward a positive resolution.
“We anticipate meeting the local hiring goals of 20 percent of the workforce on all sections of the project,” says Pakush. “ODOT is proud of the way we’ve been able to innovate and increase the amount of diversity on this project.”
City leaders say they are cautiously optimistic, but understandably reserved, not wanting to jeopardize the project nor harm its bargaining position with the state.
“The city is still in negotiations and making significant progress,” says Dan Williams, the mayor’s director of media relations, in a prepared statement.
If all three phases are completed as planned, the upside will be incredible for our city and the East Side’s disadvantaged neighborhoods. With a planned 13 intersections along its 3-mile stretch, the Opportunity Corridor boulevard will pave the way for new residential and commercial developments in neighborhoods like Fairfax, Slavic Village, Central, Kinsman and Buckeye-Woodhill — an area that has been described as the “Forgotten Triangle.” However, if it’s completed as “the highway to University Circle,” an opportunity could be lost.
Phase I already has been more successful than anyone could have imagined. Stretching along East 105th Street from the Maltz Performing Arts Center north of Chester Avenue and south to Quincy Avenue, Phase I has become fertile ground for economic development. Fairfax Renaissance, in its master planning documents for the last 10 years, refers to a section of the neighborhood to the east of Phase I of the roadway as New Economy. The IBM Explorys Project is the first project in this designated area. But, for Chris Ronayne, president of University Circle Inc., the new neighborhood has become Cleveland’s “Medical Mile.”
“The Medical Mile represents an incredible economic development opportunity and leverages our strength in health and high-tech industries,” says Ronayne. “Proof positive comes in the early landing of Explorys, a health record management company that was locally borne out of the Cleveland Clinic Innovation Center.”
Purchased by IBM in April of 2015, Explorys brings a household high-tech name to Phase I, with the potential of more than 170 high-paying jobs.
Cleveland Clinic is slated to open its $276 million, 377,000-square-foot Taussig Cancer Institute along the Medical Mile next month. And, while not directly attributable to the Phase I development, its Cole Eye Center has seen a recent infusion of philanthropic support from Jeffrey A. Cole and his wife, Patricia O’Brien Cole, in the form of a $31 million commitment to help the Cole Eye Institute expand its clinical and surgical capabilities, as well as enhance its research and educational mission.
While Phase I has opened up economic development and construction projects, completion of Phase II and Phase III will provide easier ingress and egress to University Circle — an area that employs more than 40,000 people at the Cleveland Clinic and University Hospitals alone, not to mention the Veterans Administration, cultural institutions, restaurants and entertainment venues that call the area home. It also will relieve traffic congestion in a neighborhood that is first in job growth and second in residential growth in Northeast Ohio, says Ronayne.
“The Opportunity Corridor will help us with overall traffic mitigation, but we really see it as a corridor of development throughout the entire corner of this city,” says Ronayne. “We think of the first mile as the Medical Mile, but that is just one piece of it. We need to work on a system that is inclusive of all neighborhoods along the corridor.”
While the impasse between the city and state did slow development of the Opportunity Corridor, the conflict does have something of a silver lining.
“The one positive thing about the project is that it has required entities that normally would not be at the same table to be at the same table,” says VanLeer. “There are myriad activities taking place, all intended to be of value to the neighborhoods that the road passes through, particularly employment opportunities, training, supportive services and support for minority businesses.”
“It is also an opportunity to consider the physical condition of the neighborhoods and determine what improvements can have the most impact, thereby making the neighborhoods more attractive, thus attracting new residents and businesses,” she adds. “At the end of the day, it is a road. It is our responsibility to make sure that the neighborhoods along the road are not just places that you drive through but places you drive to.”
Opportunity Corridor Economic Impact
The Opportunity Corridor is a boulevard that will run from East 55th at Interstate 490 to East 105th Street in University Circle, running through disadvantaged neighborhoods that have become known as the “Forgotten Triangle.”
The $330 million-plus project is to be constructed in three sections. Phase I, which cost an estimated $20.97 million, is nearly complete. So far, it has created 74,140 total labor hours in jobs filled by 22.72 percent local residents who received a total of 9,909 hours of on-the-job-training (OJT).
Phase II is expected to cost $35.2 million. It has already created 9,617 total labor hours in jobs involving 39.68 percent local residents. So far, those local residents have received 936 hours of OJT. The total goal for Phase II is 20 percent local hiring and 10,000 hours of OJT. Construction on the final and largest Phase III is expected to begin this year, with an estimated cost of $221 million.
According to latest diversity update from ODOT, through fall of last year $500,000 was spent on in-demand career training and recruiting for residents in Wards 4, 5 and 6 through Ohio Means Jobs. Another $250,000 was spent through Fairfax Renaissance Development for project ambassadors and recruiting for Ohio Means Jobs.
In addition to construction jobs, property values are expected to increase dramatically in the 1,086 total acres that are within a half-mile of the boulevard’s development. This includes: 201 acres in the Broadway-Slavic Village neighborhood; 180 acres in Buckeye-Woodhill; 116 acres in Central; 293 acres in Fairfax; 136 acres in Kinsman; and 72 acres in University Circle, as well as an additional 88 in acres in other neighborhoods close to the project, according to the Northeast Ohio Community and Neighborhood Data for Organizing (NEO CANDO). Currently, this area includes 47 percent vacant and 53 percent occupied land.
While there have been no precise figures on the total jobs that could be created along the Opportunity Corridor, estimates by city and neighborhood officials and previously published reports put the number in the hundreds or even thousands of new jobs over the coming decade. This would include both construction jobs for new retail and commercial facilities, as well as permanent jobs in companies that would either expand operations or relocate to the area.