Cleveland 2016 Host Committee COO, 60
Clad in a black-and-white blazer, Diane Downing takes her last meeting of the day. Upstairs in the offices of the city's tourism bureau, Destination Cleveland, she pulls up a high-backed chair and opens her legal pad with not a page out of place. As chief operating officer for the Cleveland 2016 Host Committee, this is what Downing does: meeting to meeting, problem to problem, solution to solution. If it weren't so damn important, it'd almost be boring.
As Cleveland prepares to take its place on the national stage — with nearly 50,000 visitors in the front-row seats — Downing is the woman who must pull it off. "[It is] a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do this," she says.
The same can be said for the city, which is pinning the nascent hope of a revitalized downtown and fledgling convention business on the Republican National Convention that's only seven months away. Those four days in July could be an affirmation of things achieved and an opportunity for a $200 million cash infusion. Then again, one misstep could turn promise to catastrophe with the world watching.
High pressure is an understatement. But as Cleveland tap dances into the spotlight, Downing prefers to wait in the wings. She has made a living just beside the iridescent glow of elected office, serving politicians for the majority of her 38-year career.
From 1980 to 1989, she worked in the mayoral administration of Republican George Voinovich, rising through the ranks in the community development department. When Democratic Mayor Mike White took office in 1990, she stayed on as a member of his executive staff, then left to take a post as the deputy director of the Ohio Lottery Commission in 1994 when Voinovich served as governor.
"I was able to work with both Democrats and Republicans at the city of Cleveland," says Downing. "I think at the municipal level there's not much difference. There's really only one way to fill a pothole correctly."
At Vassar College, Downing served as the president of student government and graduated with a degree in political science.
But it took the promise of a job in Republican county commissioner Seth Taft's office to draw her to Cleveland in 1977.
"If he hadn't given me the opportunity to come here, my life would have been very different," she says.
Downing lives in the Edgewater neighborhood with her husband, attorney Thomas Corrigan, and has three grown children.
"I've had a wonderful life here," says Downing. "I met my husband here. We established our family here."
Family isn't the only thing Downing has built in this town.
In 1996, she returned to the White administration to head up construction of the new Cleveland Browns Stadium as part of the city's deal with the NFL after Art Modell moved the team to Baltimore.
While Modell got a new franchise in Baltimore, Cleveland kept the Browns in return for, among other things, building a new stadium. White took control of the stadium construction, which he estimated would cost $247 million, and appointed Downing as his right hand. It dropped her right into the middle of a fight between White and city council that included many often-testy council committees.
"Shame on me for taking such delight in seeing the public's business conducted in such a messy and undignified manner," wrote Plain Dealer editorial page editor Jean Dubail after one particularly strident hearing in which Downing testified during September 1996. "But shoot, with football gone, where else do I go for blood sport?"
When it was completed on time for the Browns 1999 season, perhaps heralding that year's 2-14 record, the project had run $66.9 million over budget.
"We probably should have anticipated that our budget estimates would increase," says Downing today, after a wry laugh. "We brought football back, and I believe that a robust community offers folks an opportunity to have major sports teams along with major cultural institutions. I believe we created that."
Despite the overruns, Downing's ability to hold the line in the face of onrushing deadlines and a blitz of criticism did not go unnoticed. In 2000, she left public service to become director of stadium operations and, eventually, vice president for government affairs for the Browns.
Now a senior vice president at Huntington Bank, Downing received a call from Host Committee president and CEO David Gilbert, who offered a challenge to building something once again.
Downing sees the convention as an opportunity to showcase Cleveland and spur future growth. It was, after all, a Republican who brought Downing to town in the first place.
"We are a wonderful city that has a lot to offer, that is embracing new technologies, has a robust medical community, startups, young people living downtown, great cultural institutions, sports teams. We want people to see that," she says. "The real measure of our success is what comes over the next five years, the next 10 years."
But first, Downing has to pull off the nitty-gritty work of piecing together the convention. Working with the Committee on Arrangements, the national party's convention logistics arm, Downing oversees a staff of six responsible for making sure that Cleveland is prepared for the swarm of delegates, media and gawkers.
"If you take it to the basics, it's like welcoming a guest into your home," says Downing.
Sure, but only if your family room is the size of Quicken Loans Arena and the Cleveland Convention Center, both of which have been reserved through a site agreement by the Host Committee, from July 18 to 21.
Guest bedrooms? You'll need 16,200 in Northeast Ohio, 95 percent of which must be within 35 minutes of the city. Most of the available rooms in the region were promised to the Grand Old Party, and the Host Committee is supervising the reservations. The Committee on Arrangements then divvies them up among various delegations.
The Host Committee initially struggled with acquiring all the rooms and had even considered a lawsuit after several hotels reneged on earlier agreements. But now, with Downing on board, the process is back on track and nearing its goal.
"We are over 16,000 hotel rooms done," she says, speaking in early December.
Destination Cleveland has also assembled a directory of suppliers that will be needed to put on the convention — from caterers to DJs to balloon providers. More than 1,200 have already signed up.
"We felt it was very important to give local business an opportunity to secure business from the convention," says Downing.
In addition, the Host Committee must raise $64 million — $58 million in cash, the rest in technology infrastructure upgrades — to finance the endeavor. As of early December, the committee has raised $42.5 million from mostly corporate sources.
"There are companies in Ohio that are very interested in contributing because the convention's in Ohio," says Downing. "Then there are national companies that give to conventions, both parties, every time they are held."
As the convention nears, Downing still has much work to do. A staff of volunteers must be assembled — only 3,600 of the required 8,000 have signed up as of early December.
But as she coordinates a small army of volunteers and chases down wandering hoteliers, Downing is still thinking further ahead. On loan from Huntington until Labor Day, she will stick around long enough to close the Host Committee's post-convention
"Then I plan to be on vacation for a week or two," she says, doing her best to stay on-message about the region's many attributes. "I haven't finalized that yet, but as we know, there are many wonderful places to go in Northeast Ohio."