Several community residents are visiting in the East Cleveland living room of Helen Forbes Fields and her husband, Darrell A. Fields. They are talking about ways to address challenges facing the troubled city when they are interrupted by a knock at the door.
Darrell Fields jumps up to answer. Three boys step inside, rakes in hand. They offer to clear the leaves from the lawn, hoping to earn a few dollars for their efforts.
“This is also East Cleveland,” Darrell says as he gestures to the kids standing next to him, bundled up for the cold. “This is the East Cleveland that no one hears about.”
The Cleveland suburb, with a population of roughly 17,800 people, is facing an existential crisis.
A diminished income-tax base, cuts in state funding, lagging real estate recovery, the exodus of jobs, a population that’s been cut in half over the last 35 years, crumbling infrastructure and limited means to provide public services are among the crises the city is confronting. A recent report from the state Office of Budget and Management concluded that, “Given its demographic and economic base, it is unlikely that East Cleveland will extricate itself from its financial distress by current means available” under state law.
East Cleveland has been in and out of state-declared fiscal emergency since 1988, most recently slipping back into emergency in 2012.
Yet the community boasts some enviable features. It prides itself on once being the home of John D. Rockefeller, the country’s first billionaire. There is Forest Hill Park, deeded to the city and Cleveland Heights by the Rockefeller estate. There is Pattison Park and a community theater. There are the gorgeous, sprawling Forest Hill homes.
In addition, the city is close to everything the Cleveland area has to offer.
“When people come to this area, they say, ‘Wow. Is this East Cleveland?’ Yeah, yeah, it is East Cleveland,” says Darrell Fields.
“All of the people in this room can live any place they want. We choose to live here,” says Gordon Hay, who maintains Forest Hill Park as president of Forest Hill Park Association. “It’s close to the things we care about. We have a great park. We have access to the museums.”
“And we have great neighbors that are very involved and care about the city,”,” adds Helen Forbes Fields, who previously served as city law director and is on the city’s state-mandated financial planning and supervision commission. Forbes Fields is vice president of community impact and general counsel for the United Way of Greater Cleveland.
All are committed to helping steer East Cleveland toward a better future. In discussions that took place prior to a recall of top city officials, they and other community leaders shared their ideas to solve the city’s woes.
From their insights, a road map emerged.
The elephant in the room
Presented with an idea to merge with the City of Cleveland, many East Clevelanders balked.
The issue proved so divisive, in fact, that the city officials who led the effort to explore a merger — Mayor Gary Norton and Council President Thomas Wheeler — were forced from office.
Although negotiations between the two cities began last year, they stalled shortly thereafter and numerous hurdles to a merger — including East Cleveland’s recall of pro-merger leaders, insistence that Cleveland must accept the related financial burden of a merger, and that both cities’ voters would have to approve the move, among other factors — remain.
Given the divisiveness and discontent, those who care deeply about the city and its future believe that any plan to move the city forward must begin with community outreach.
“I think the first thing that has to happen: Just listen to people,” says Trevelle Harp, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Alliance for Hope, a community organizing group that aims to build a more equitable community in East Cleveland. “We need to get everything on the table and focus on getting everyone accurate information.”
Because of the work they do, organizations like NOAH are uniquely positioned to build bridges between community members and city officials by leading the dialogue.
“There’s a lot of misinformation out there,” says Rob Hilton, who leads the McGregor Foundation, which serves seniors in need. “And so, I think we have to continue the process of holding town hall meetings all over the city so people get accurate information about what annexation is going to involve.”
Hilton suggests that town hall meetings should expand to a larger number of neighborhoods so people feel more comfortable attending. For a public outreach campaign to succeed in building consensus, of course, people must be willing to listen. The challenge is to convince East Cleveland residents to keep an open mind. These meetings are public information sessions without a political undertone.
Harp is optimistic.
“This community does have a lot of people who are passionate and really care about this community, and I think we just need to tap into that positivity,” he says.
Organizations like NOAH and the McGregor Foundation can also facilitate success by bringing their efforts to Columbus.
“I think the missing piece in all of this has been the advocacy of non-political current and prospective stakeholders in the city. We’ve pretty much left it up to the political process, and I think there is a lot more we can do to help out,” says Hilton. “I think we need to do a better job of advocating for the city in Columbus, so that the state can get involved to make the prospect of merger more attractive to not only the City of East Cleveland, but the City of Cleveland.
“I feel that there’s probably more that people like me could do…in order to demonstrate and reassure the county and the state that there’s a very attractive future for East Cleveland in the view of private interest,” he adds.
A united front
Essential to attracting and keeping the attention of private interests is stability at City Hall. “I’m personally frustrated with the recall of Gary Norton and Thomas Wheeler,” Hilton says. “I think the instability that is evident in their recall is very discouraging to private interests, and it’s going to set back the process of fixing what’s wrong.”
Wheeler would like to see city officials continue on the path that he and Norton forged. “They should be behind a united front to draw in businesses, and make it attractive for businesses to want to come in,” he says. “Nobody wants to help you when you’re fighting amongst yourselves.”
John Moody Jr., a retired bank executive who served on the city’s first state-mandated fiscal commission, believes leaders need to write a step-by-step development plan.
“If we’re going to do anything in East Cleveland, we’re going to have to come up with a comprehensive plan that we can sell to whomever. Citizens. The City of Cleveland. The county. Everyone,” he says.
Ideally, City Hall would begin work on such a plan right away, and it would include citizens and regional partners in the process.
What might such a plan look like?
“One of the major benefits in East Cleveland right now is that we’re so close to University Circle. They could spread into East Cleveland if we had an overall comprehensive plan of development,” says Moody. “The question is, how do you reposition the communities around that?”
First, some of the city’s essential infrastructure needs must be addressed.
State Rep. Kent Smith, a Democrat who represents East Cleveland, has proposed legislation that would reallocate some of Ohio’s Rainy Day Funds to local governments in fiscal distress. “Where there is low land cost, there is always opportunity,” Smith says. “The challenge is, if you’re a developer and you’re looking to increase your footprint in the University Circle area, if you choose to build in East Cleveland, we don’t know if there’s really going to be a working fire department.”
House Bill 508, which Smith introduced last year, would give East Cleveland $6.7 million it could put toward such infrastructure projects.
A development plan must also look at restructuring parts of the city.
“You drive around north of Euclid Avenue, and you’re going to see where some streets are possibly totally vacant, one or two houses on them. You have to get the community to understand, we might have to reconfigure everything down here,” Moody says.
“I think the idea of it is to figure out how we reconfigure East Cleveland so that the people, old East Cleveland, feel that they have a stake in what the new East Cleveland could be,” says Darrell Fields. “And I think that is the bridge that we’re trying to cross.”
When people ask state Sen. Kenny Yuko if he’s afraid to drive through East Cleveland at night, he tells them yes — not because of crime, but because of the potholes that riddle city roads. So hard hit are the city’s coffers that basic public services have at times been beyond the city’s means.
“The state’s position is, ‘You need to balance your budget.’ So how do you balance your budget? You cut things,” says Moody. “Cut, cut, cut, cut. And at some point in time, you’re cutting the bone.”
East Cleveland’s bones cannot be cut any deeper. There is strong sentiment that it is time for Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s administration to put to good use some of its $2 billion Rainy Day Fund or restore some of the local government funding that was cut to grow that fund.
“Where is the carrot that says, if, for example, East Cleveland and Cleveland were to merge, and the state said, ‘OK, part of the deal is we’re going to give you all back your local government fund dollars.’ Not just Cleveland’s old number, but East Cleveland’s too, for a 15-, 20-year period,” says Darrell Fields. “That’s the incentive, that’s the carrot that we then build the consensus around to say, ‘Here’s how we’re going to use the dollars.’”
An OBM representative offered a different perspective.
“While East Cleveland is in fiscal emergency, they are not in fiscal emergency because of a reduction in local government funds,” agency spokesman John Charlton wrote in an email.
He urged a “larger picture” view of the situation, pointing to some numbers illustrating the state’s support for local governments.
“The [Local Government Fund] represents only about 2.5 percent of all state support going to hometown services and the LGF represents only seven-tenths of a percent of the total estimated revenues collected by local governments and schools each year,” he says, quoting a 2014 fact sheet that he said closely mirrors an update that was being prepared.
In regards to the Rainy Day Fund, Charlton adds: “Given the fact that 85 cents of every dollar in the general revenue fund is passed along to locals, the Budget Stabilization Fund is actually protecting communities should the economy unexpectedly turn sour. The fund was created as a hedge to protect the state budget (and local governments) against future economic downturns.”
Given the Kasich administration's position, it is up to stakeholders in East Cleveland’s crisis, and the crises facing other communities like East Cleveland, to press the issue. That, at least, is what Smith and Yuko view as their roles.
“Obviously we have a Rainy Day Fund. I don't know what it’s used for in the State of Ohio, besides bragging rights. It’s certainly not used to help people,” Yuko says. “What I need to do is keep pounding into our auditor and our governor” until they are convinced to release some funds.
East Cleveland is far from alone in its plight. As of this writing, 33 local governments in Ohio were in fiscal distress. For some people, that is a source of hope; for others, frustration.
“We’re not in a bubble,” says Helen Forbes Fields. “So a state representative and state senator from Steubenville or other communities have to feel some type of empathy, which they may or may not, toward this area. That’s why it has to be a much bigger discussion.”
Smith is hopeful he can get some Republicans who represent these districts on board with his legislation.
“Like two-thirds or 75 percent of these communities…are represented by Republicans,” he says. “I’m going to keep bringing this issue up. It’s my job to make sure that Columbus pays attention to East Cleveland, whether they want to hear this story or not.”
While East Cleveland’s problems are not unique, the city can distinguish itself with its solutions.
“We have the opportunity to kind of serve as a precedent for how the state could get involved and really make good things happen for these depressed communities,” says Hilton.
Yuko sees such progress as not just possible, but inevitable.
“We are going to build the Opportunity Corridor,” he says. University Circle has grown to capacity, he believes, with little room for further development in areas to its north, south and west.
But, he adds: “If you look east…all of a sudden you have ‘Welcome to East Cleveland.’ You have opportunity galore.”