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Cleveland Connects With Philadelphia

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Construction cranes rising out of Cleveland's Flats district recently marked the start of the first new downtown office building in years. It's part of a seven billion dollar development boom in the city that includes a Medical Mart and Convention Center, art museums, an aquarium and casino. But how to keep the boom going? The answer can be found in Philadelphia…at least that’s what a jam-packed audience heard here at the Idea Center Monday night. Ideastream's David C. Barnett has more.

NOTE: You can see the "Cleveland Connects" public forum in its entirety by tuning - in Sunday morning at 11:00 on WVIZ/PBS.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012 at 5:40 pm

At the public forum…put on by The Plain Dealer and PNC bank’s foundation, Paul Levy told a story about his home town of Philadelphia and what it was like 20 years ago. It’ll sound familiar to many Clevelanders.

PAUL LEVY: People didn't want to be in the downtown. We had vacant buildings, we had boarded-up stores, we were largely a 9-5 downtown where nothing happened after 5:30. Most important, we were losing office jobs to the suburbs.

Levy has helped shepherd a rebirth in his city by creating a special improvements district known as Center City Philadelphia. Through a corps of so-called "downtown ambassadors", the organization helps keep the streets clean and graffiti off the walls, alerts police to possible problems and offers guidance to visitors. New directional signs and sidewalk lighting were installed, and festivals created ….all to attract people back to the streets that they once feared. Downtown businesses and other city stakeholders financed the program through a self-imposed tax. Levy says those investments set the stage for a blossoming of Philadelphia's restaurants and storefronts.

PAUL LEVY:What improvement districts do is not major development, but small-scale, repetitive, incremental changes that add up over time. Quite simply, we added many more reasons for people to be downtown, and that drove a growth in retail.

Six years ago, a downtown improvement district, based on the Philadelphia model was created in Cleveland, with a similar group of ambassadors who patrol the streets via foot and bike. Federal transportation dollars invested along Euclid Avenue helped spruce-up the streetscape with our new lighting and smooth sidewalks. The power of small improvements can be seen in city neighborhoods, as well. Vickie Johnson, who heads the Fairfax Renaissance Development Corp. on the near east side also spoke at the Monday night event about their revival in a community perceived by some as dangerous.

VICKIE JOHNSON: We've had movie nights, we've had concerts, we've had picnics and the old guys show up on Sunday to play basketball. The best thing you can do is to prove the naysayers wrong by not being afraid.

Paul Levy argues that the overall message from the Philadelphia experience --- and from Cleveland's growing progress --- is to build things people will really use ---be they multi-million-dollar attractions… or simply brightening up the streets.

PAUL LEVY: People attract people. You start this cycle of improvement with very small scale things that change your perception.

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