Chris Ronayne’s schedule is packed on a Monday in late November.
In fact, he has been busy for two decades. Ronayne started his career as campaign manager and planning director for Mayor Jane Campbell. Since 2005, when he became president of University Circle Inc., he’s worked to support the development of Cleveland’s East Side by increasing business activity and improving public spaces like Wade Oval. But even outside of the Circle, you could expect to see his suited broad shoulders and everyman-tousled head of gray hair pop up pretty much anywhere something good was happening in Northeast Ohio.
In November, Ronayne was elected as the third-ever executive of Cuyahoga County. The position, which was most recently held by Armond Budish (to mixed reviews), is one so quietly powerful that some consider it just steps beneath Governor.
So yeah, this Cleveland cheerleader’s plate is full more than 50 days before he’s sworn into office in January — which is fine when there is so much cheering to be done.
Today, for example, starts with the announcement of a new professional soccer team coming to Cleveland. The move creates “a more-global Cuyahoga County,” Ronayne says from the stage.
A few hours later, he’s off to the Greater Cleveland Partnership’s All In Summit. On stage at The Madison event venue, next to members of Congress and City Council, Ronayne shares dispatches from the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, at which he recently spoke as a representative for the Great Lakes. “Our freshwater resource is the envy of the world,” he tells the Cleveland crowd.
Taking advantage of Cleveland’s natural assets is pivotal to Ronayne’s vision for a “New Cuyahoga” — the one he pitched and refined over a year of campaigning. With our natural resources and the success story of the Cuyahoga River, which has taken major strides toward being delisted from the EPA’s Areas of Concern 50 years after it caught fire, Ronayne believes we deserve the title of the “Waterborn Capital of the World.”
“My vision is to make Cuyahoga County the most sustainable place on the planet,” says Ronayne. “We are sitting on a treasure we need not neglect.”
The cause is nothing new to Ronayne. In 2004 as planning director, he led the Cleveland Lakefront Plan. But nearly 20 years later, that cause is more urgent. After all, a United Nations report predicts that global warming, drought and famine might uproot 143 million people over the next 30 years, and Cleveland has a moderate climate and access to the Great Lakes, 20% of the world’s surface freshwater supply. By orienting our infrastructure around freshwater and courting green tech jobs, Ronayne believes there is an economic opportunity in welcoming them.
“Over a year and a half of campaigning, I laid out my vision,” he says, “and I heard ways in which we needed to refine it down to things like better transportation systems, more complete housing offerings, communities connected by parks and transits.”
Finally, he heads off to his most important meeting of the day: Hockey practice at Winterhurst Arena. Ironically, this group of 14-year-old constituents might just have the most to gain from Ronayne accomplishing those lofty goals for our county’s future.
“That’s my joy,” Ronayne says. “I put down the phone. I’m in the moment, and I’m teaching kids the game of hockey.”
Hockey has been a mainstay in Ronayne’s life for four decades. Before his kids Audrey and Joe picked up sticks, Ronayne learned to skate on that Lakewood rink. He then played for Bay Village High School and was captain his senior year, which is how he believes he learned to be a leader.
“One of the benefits of team sports is you learn about life,” he says. “As a coach, trying to create chemistry, I’ve learned that you elevate and organize the strengths of each individual player for the benefit of the whole.”
Funny — whether it’s between leaders on the local or national level, from the new guard or old guard and even among surrounding counties, that same spirit he preaches on the ice might just be the key to capitalizing on this pivotal time in our region’s future.
“It’s a really historic and unique moment to have so many new civic leaders all at once,” he says. “Politically speaking, the next generation, millennials, are really driving change in this town. Cleveland is a mid-sized city with big city assets. And now we’re about to use them.”