On Dec. 3, over a Monday lunch hour, Cleveland.com president and editor Chris Quinn and City Club of Cleveland CEO Dan Moulthrop sat in a conference room and attempted to resuscitate Northeast Ohio’s economy with some creative brainstorming.
Settling in on a Facebook livestream, the pair hosted the session on Remesh, a live commenting platform founded in Cleveland. With the title “Strengthening Northeast Ohio’s Economy,” one might have expected new ideas, a gleefully discordant choir. In a post beforehand, they said they had space on the risers for up to 1,000 people.
Only about 80 logged on. And they bore songbooks full of greatest hits. Northeast Ohio’s economic strength, apparently, is our ability to get the old band back together. Over and over. Lakefront development jammed out a guitar solo, backed by stadium deals on bass. Affordable housing drummed faithfully along. Public transit, the backup singer, added bounce to every note. But one bandmate, that reliably Tom Waitsian singer Poor Leadership, croaked along front and center.
“What’s your biggest concern about the region’s future?” Moulthrop asked.
“That we will continue to do the same old thing and not innovate,” was the top-voted response. “That the same people will remain in power and not listen to new voices.”
Irony upon irony.
Last year, Kohrman Jackson & Krantz managing partner Jon Pinney declared Cleveland “dead last in most economic metrics” during a speech at the City Club. It was a ballsy sentiment for the self-proclaimed “know-it-all lawyer” to utter to his peers. Pinney had torn back Cleveland’s veil of self-delusion.
“Depending on who you talked to, there was a lot of praise for just having the courage to do it, and there was some criticism,” Pinney told me after the speech when I cornered him at a Blockland event in August. “It’s created a really great conversation, one that needed to occur.”
The conversation may be rollicking, but it’s abundantly clear who has the loudest voice — the business community. Months later, there was a planning summit of 15 local leaders Dec. 13 and 14. (Cleveland Magazine editor Steve Gleydura was invited to attend as one of 55 “community members” who will assist in the planning.) The core group of 15 includes, as of this writing, two women, and is drawn from the Union Club orbit. Even the Rev. Stephen Rowan, pastor of Bethany Baptist Church, is a former partner at Ulmer & Berne and also chairman of the Cleveland Foundation board.
Where are the politicians? Cleveland councilman Kerry McCormack appeared to have been the only prominent one to attend Pinney’s speech and most have had little to say about it publicly since. Democratically elected officeholders should lead any conversation about this region’s future, especially one as important as plotting its economic path.
Yet they are more than happy to cede leadership to the business community — the same community that bears responsibility for Northeast Ohio’s economic decline in the first place. They are the ones who moved jobs to the Sun Belt, put Progressive’s headquarters in Mayfield Village instead of downtown Cleveland and reincorporated Eaton Corp. in Ireland for a tax break. Good as their intentions may now be, they will not save us.
Perhaps local pols simply don’t think it’s their problem. Brown University sociologist Josh Pacewicz wrote of this in The Washington Post in 2016, when he said that by the 2000s, Rust Belt community leaders “saw statecraft as a technical affair and focused on building coalitions to secure grants, woo corporate subsidiaries (frequently with public subsidies) and create cultural amenities.”
Local leaders in the region — from county executives to township trustees — look out on the economy through a tiny porthole. They sail from project to project, port to port, but fail to evaluate the place of each in the choppy economic expanse, beyond trite signal flags of always-positive “economic impact.” A hotel, convention center or stadium might be one port. But there’s a big, stormy sea out there to be mapped and navigated.
Pinney, to his credit, shined a lighthouse beam on the true nature of that water. For some people in the region, the economy is working fabulously. According to the Two Tomorrows report, created by the Fund For Our Economic Future, indicators of local prosperity are rising. Between 2011 and 2015, average household income in our corner of Ohio rose by 4 percent. Headlines last September bragged that growth in Cleveland outpaced Columbus and Cincinnati.
But even as some conditions get better on average, Northeast Ohio is at risk of developing a hollowed-out economy mirroring the country’s, with a void between the haves on one pole and the have-nots on the other. For the have-nots, things are not liable to get better. Racial exclusion is still very real. The black unemployment rate in Northeast Ohio in 2016 was nine points higher than the white one, and disparities in earnings between white and black workers are rising.
Automation’s mechanical feet also clank onward. Ohio has the second-largest share of industrial robots in the country. The aging regional workforce is undereducated and many jobs are in declining industries such as manufacturing. Measures of productivity are venturing upward, but more than half of new jobs in the 25 fastest growing regional industries pay wages below $35,000.
We are more exposed than ever to global market shifts, and the whims of mobile labor and capital. Of the eight Northeast Ohio companies on the 2018 Fortune 500 list, at least three have been under activist investor pressure at some point in the last five years, according to a quick Google search.
Even the bright spots, wonderfully thriving industries such as biosciences, health care and tech startups, are likely to further patterns of inequality, not combat them.
Inequality breeds instability. And instability is bad for business, which means the future likely won’t be much better. In a global marketplace, place is always secondary to profit.
Market demands will change, workers will migrate hither and yon, and Wall Street will shriek of “shareholder value.” More Forest City Realty Trusts will be excised of local owners’ control and sold to Canadian firms. More Lordstown plants will close.
In that light, the region must focus on the limited places it can make things equitably less bad. The Fund suggests the least we could do: create good-paying jobs in fewer sprawling areas, educate people for those jobs and make sure they can get to said jobs.
But to do that, politicians must own the table and be clear-headed about who pays for the groceries, who does the cooking and in whose favor the feast or famine is portioned.
Local history and current reality show the business community’s interests will always be fixed on their peers and profits. Elected officials have an obligation to make decisions based on a wider view of regional well-being.
As University of Virginia law professor Richard Schragger writes in City Power, local politicians actually have extraordinary muscle. The same politicians who helped revitalize West 25th Street have dominion over Sherwin-Williams, the Cleveland Clinic and KeyCorp. They could set an agenda for, as the Two Tomorrows report puts it, “a continuously regenerating economy that creates good jobs and rising incomes for everyone.”
Business is the most important player at the table. But elected officials, accountable to voters, should be at its head. Politicians need only be willing to pull up a chair.