When it comes to redevelopment, some Cleveland neighborhoods shine brightly. On the West Side, Tremont, Ohio City and the Gordon Square Arts District are sparkling constellations. On the East Side, the Waterloo Arts District is beginning to gleam. Along East 185th Street, Brian Friedman sees a twinkle.
The marquee of the La Salle Theater boasts of the opening of "Made In Collinwood," the development corporation's effort to support and market the neighborhood's small businesses that produce handmade goods. Businesses such as Chili Peppers Fresh Mexican Grill are established and healthy.
But those efforts might only flicker, unless the neighborhood gets what those other successful districts have: a private investor willing to pour time and personal money into revitalizing the sagging commercial corridor.
"It's not enough to have a nonprofit. It isn't enough to have a local politician," says Friedman, executive director of Northeast Shores Development Corp. "You need a kind of visionary that's on the private side."
Often, those visionaries aren't professional developers. But with their access to capital, both their own and from other sources, these individuals are frequently the ones who can bring together the often-disparate agendas of governments, nonprofits, banks and residents into a tangible product.
Friedman ticks off examples: James Levin, the attorney who founded Cleveland Public Theatre in Gordon Square, and Cindy Barber, whose Beachland Ballroom and Tavern anchors Waterloo Road.
He names others: Sam McNulty, who invested in West 25th Street and Michael Symon, who brought panache to Tremont.
"Where's my James Levin...or Cindy Barber?" Friedman says. "Where's my private champion, leading the charge with their vision and their money, [going] beyond what anyone should ever be doing in a million years?"
Friedman's question isn't rhetorical; it's practical. Cleveland's community development corporations long used housing to spark neighborhood development. But the collapse of property values in 2008 necessitated a new approach — one that doesn't rely on wary banks or corporate developers. In blighted neighborhoods, single evangelists with significant means are often the only option.
But how do you convince one of these people to invest?
Make it personal. More and more, neighborhood revitalization is about placemaking — improving a community by reviving or creating spaces where folks want to gather. In Cleveland, individuals define themselves through geography, whether in Glenville or Hough, Clark-Fulton or Old Brooklyn.
Evangelists like Barber love their adopted neighborhoods, enough that they were willing to risk their shirts to revive them. Instead of waiting for altruistic governments, charities or banks, communities should court these ardent devotees of place.
They can spark that love with the balance sheet. A friendly investor can be hooked by stressing facts that demonstrate how risking money on an unconventional venture could turn to profit.
For instance, a neighborhood's potential is not always in its buildings.
"A strategy based on physical development as a cure for neighborhood ills made sense in a particular historical moment of cheap credit and a sustained, albeit slow, rise in real-estate values," wrote Cleveland State University professor Norman Krumholz in a 2012 report on the future of community development. "Those circumstances no longer exist in Cleveland, and the challenge for the future is thinking through new roles for neighborhood developers that have the potential for sustained success."
North Shore Collinwood is generally viewed as downtrodden. But 2012 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau list the median family income as roughly $35,000. Compare that to more lauded neighborhoods: $27,000 in Tremont and $25,000 in Ohio City.
Alternatives to physical development in the North Shore Collinwood neighborhood that capitalize on that higher median income — events similar to the Night Market and Cleveland Flea in St. Clair Superior — can offer neighborhood evangelists a way to get their feet in the door comfortably.
But those pioneers must be willing to fight for their idea. Barber moved into North Collinwood in 1986. A music lover, she had her eye on the Croatian Liberty Home. With its stage, tavern and acoustics, the facility was musician-ready. But repeatedly, banks tried to steer her to the Flats.
A building there would have cost $1 million, Barber says, far more than her buyout from the Cleveland Free Times would cover.
"Trying to get anybody to give us a loan was like, 'We like your business plan, but why would you want to do that in North Collinwood? You can't possibly succeed in that neighborhood,' " she says.
In 2000, she bought the Croatian Liberty Home for a total of $250,000. The purchase was fortuitous. The entertainment district in the Flats began to wane just as The Beachland began to ascend. But Barber still shakes her head over the skepticism that repeatedly met her ideas.
Friedman says such doubt grows out of another Cleveland tradition: entrenched racial attitudes that lead folks with money to scorn East Side neighborhoods.
"We scratch our heads on why [such development] doesn't happen here," Friedman says. "But this neighborhood is significantly more pigmented than that neighborhood."
An antidote to those stereotypes might start by more strongly touting the success of minority-owned projects such as the Rid-All Green Partnership. A trio of childhood friends invested $100,000 in an urban farm on East 81st Street and Otter Avenue. While their complex isn't placemaking, it is a sign to potential investors that innovation and risk-taking can succeed on the East Side.
Dismissive attitudes haven't deterred Rick Semersky. When the owners of Sterle's Country House approached him about purchasing the landmark Slovenian restaurant on East 55th Street, he plunked down $425,000 to keep it from closing.
That was in 2012. Now he's on the verge of opening a brewery at Hub 55, the 50,000-square-foot building that once housed his construction company. Semersky's renovation includes a market where nearby residents can buy fresh food and space for fledgling businesses and pop-up events. When the project is complete, he hopes to be able to sit in a garden along Bona Avenue where his grandmother lived.
Still, Semersky's optimism is mingled with worry. What is an evangelist without a flock?
"Every day, I have a little more confidence because there are a lot of people who are showing interest in the neighborhood," he says. "I'll be more comfortable when I see somebody else follow right behind me."