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Improving Cleveland’s Image: Getting the Word Out to the Country About the “Comeback City”

Thursday, December 14, 2000 at 12:32 PM

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In recent years the city of Cleveland has made giant strides in cleaning up its image. We call ourselves the "comeback city." But while citizens, business and political leaders pat each other on the back, the rest of the country still might not have gotten the message. Many believe the image problem is hurting Cleveland's ability to attract talented workers and to cultivate new businesses. A study released earlier this year seems to bear this out. But to find out how outsiders really see the city, we came here, Bourbon Street in New Orleans. WCPN's Mike West reports.

Ohio itself I don’t think is a great place to be, to be honest with you. I mean a lot of people just have a bad image of Ohio because of the Ohio Turnpike to be honest with ya, people don’t like driving through it.

I think of too cold—too cold.

Tore down, they restore their historical buildings, it looks trashed.

It’s too cold it’s too gray, too overcast.

Too far from the ocean.

I have a friend who just came up from New Mexico and he still sees Cleveland as being dirty, trashy, polluted river, ha, ha city.

I think of the lake, I’ve never been to Cleveland, but I think lake sweeping down over that cold city.

People around Cincinnati say, “why doesn’t Cincinnati fall into the Ohio River.” The answer: “because Cleveland sucks so hard.”

This is what many people still think of when they visualize Cleveland. Factories pounding out products while smokestacks foul the air and dump chemicals into waterways. According to a survey released earlier this year, it’s a perception Cleveland is still stuck with. Patricia Cirillo is the president of the cypress research group.

Patricia Cirillo- It is very much seen as a manufacturing town and all of the images that are associated with a manufacturing center. Dirty, not visually appealing, lacking green space, old and less tangible descriptions, not cool not hip. It’s not a place where Idon’t think people brag, “hey Iget to move to Cleveland now.” I think that people hear just the opposite. “my goodness your moving to Cleveland, what are you thinking. While I think some other cities have more a coolness factor for lack of better term. So they use pretty derogatory terms.

MW- Cirillo’s company was hired to oversee a national survey done for “Cleveland Today,” an organization that promotes northeast Ohio to the rest of the country in an effort to attract more business and other opportunities. But exactly what happened to soil Cleveland’s image and create nick names like the “mistake on the lake?”

The bad wrap for Cleveland can be at least partially traced to right here, at the banks of the Cuyahoga river. We’re here at a small water fall just south of the city. At one time big industrial cities were admired and desirable. But pollution problems came with the prosperity. Here in Cleveland pollution eventually caused the Cuyahoga to catch fire. One of several incidents that brought national attention, laughter and disgust.

Edward Pershey- And that’s not an unusual occurrence actually for a large cities. The thought that water can burn obviously puts people off. But that was just the case of a lot of material floating on the surface of the river.

MW- Edward Pershey of the Western Reserve Historical Society. He recalls the events that led up to the river catching on fire in the summer of 1969.

EP- I know when I first came to Cleveland in 1966 to go to school, the first time I saw the Cuyahoga river it was tomato soup red and I think anyone will agree if they were to go down to the flats now days the river looks considerably different than it did 35 years ago.

MW- The 20 minute blaze broke out at about noon and must have been quite a sight, with flames reaching about five stories in height. The fire broke out under a rail road bridge and some say it was really the trestle and not the actual water that burned. But in any case, the fire didn’t do much for Cleveland’s reputation. Pershey says it may not be fair to single out Cleveland for it’s dirty water. He says at the time of the fire many other rivers had the same problem.

EP- But the Cuyahoga river was not unusual in it level of pollution across the country. That’s the end result of 150 years of industrialization in the united states in which there were very little attempt to control what we were dumping into our rivers until the 1960s. In the 19th century particularly then you get a huge overuse of rivers and the Cuyahoga river was a classic example of that with a heavy concentration of industry along the northern mile and a half, two miles of the river had all kinds of processes were being used, we have steel being made at the turn of the 20th century, before that there were iron foundries, you have John D. Rockefeller’s oil refining along the Cuyahoga river, you have paints and chemicals manufactured along the Cuyahoga river. And the catching fire was an unfortunate public event but if you look at the history of rivers in industrial rivers in the United States it’s not really that unusual.

MW- Pershey the rest of the country should probably thank the city for the blaze. Attention focused on the fire helped lead to the creation of the federal clean water act. The new standards forced the clean up of rivers and lakes across the nation.

Terry Uhl is the executive director of “Cleveland Today,” a development agency that paid for the image study. He says the fact that they city went broke in the 70s tops the list when it comes to ruining Cleveland’s good name.

Terry Uhl- Probably most importantly when the city went into default in 1979. First american city ever to do it, that was huge national press, and really focused attention on what had happened in Cleveland as an example of other northern industrial cities in the last 10, 15 years.

MW- The financial problems came to light when the city couldn’t pay back $14 million in bonds to 6 local banks. The dominos started falling after the city used water bond money to pay for operating expenses. The approved practice of fund juggling began under Mayor Ralph Perk and continued into the Dennis Kucinich administration. Ironically, water fund money again came up short under the michael white administration. A outside audit turned up $52 million that was used to shore up the general fund. An investigation into whether the mayor committed any wrong doing is still under investigation..

The bankruptcy happened when the practice led to a shortfall of cash, the banks wouldn’t extend credit unless the city sold it’s electric company, something mayor kucinich refused to do. When it was all over, Cleveland was the first city since the depression to go bankrupt. Historian Edward Pershey.

EP- I think there was a combination of everything, there was not much money in the coffers and a battle between city government, some of the corporate leaders in the city, and the way that things get financed and Muni Light and Power was one of the issues in terms of relinquishing control of the electric power system. A combination of ingredients and people kind of drawing a line in the sand I suppose and refusing to cross it. There was a lot of power politics left from maybe the 60s that was still going on in term of confrontational as a way of getting things done, so it was a combination of ingredients, the bad political mix and possibly some poor judgment on a number of fronts. But also I think there was, city coffers were not really great at that time, it was combination. I don’t we can, at least in retrospect people can point to this or that particular fault, a lot of people point to the former mayor as one of the issues, but there is lots of different stories about that and what went on.

MW- The city’s financial problems were aggravated by a shrinking population and a growing loss of jobs and badly needed tax dollars.

EP- That was true for a lot of mid-west industrial cities. Cleveland wasn’t unique in terms of the problems it was facing in that period. It was unfortunate that it gained that reputation with the default but that was really a turning point for the city, maybe sometimes you have to go through crisis in order to understand what you have as community and what needs to be done to keep a community viable and alive. So that I guess you could say is there a low point, that might have been a low point.

MW- The dubious events were also occurring. They included former Mayor Ralph Perk’s hair catching on fire during a ribbon cutting ceremony. Perk’s wife also became a laughing stock. In 1972 she told reporters she couldn’t make it to a White House dinner because it was her bowling night. Certainly many other cities have had their share of embarrassment, but why has public opinion been so unforgiving when it comes to Cleveland? Richard Shatten is the Director of Economic Issues at the Weatherhead School of Management at Case Western Reserve University. He has his own theory.

Richard Shatten- We were one more tired old industrial city, so why were we singled out? We were singled out at least because of the confluence of every thing all at the same time. There were very few communities that had these deep racial, social, political, legal divisions at the exact same time as we had terrible political comedy, that’s the only way to describe it. A business community that had largely left the room as an organized place, so they became part of the battle. And so at the margin the business community leaned in different directions. I think if you cut through all of that though there still is this fundamental question of we had lost our grip on our economy. When a region loses a third of all its manufacturing from 1970 to 1983 it’s telling a message “this is not a place to build a career.”

MW- Things began to change by the end of the 70s. George Voinovich became the new mayor after defeating Dennis Kucinich. He still remembers being greeted by put downs as he crossed the threshold at city hall.

George Voinovich- One of the jokes around town was, will the last person leavin’ town turn out the lights. I looked around and saw the public/private partnership, the private sector was doing in town for united way, for the arts, for education, for social service agencies, education it was a vibrant community. My feeling was if I could galvanize those resources and bring them to bear on city problems, I would get people to understand that they had a relationship where if they cooperated with each other, various groups could achieve their own respective goals.

MW- Voinovich says his work was cut out for him. Political, community and business leaders needed to be brought together if Cleveland was to stagger to its feet again.

GV- Initially we brought in the private sector to do an operations improvement task force to really loom at what was really happening in the city. Book in auditable bills not paid, no financial management system. A great need for quality people to take over the directorships in the city. And so what we did was first analyze the situation we then identified the fact that we needed to get on board some new leadership which we were able to do with the help of the private sector.

MW- While Mayor Voinovich and others were working to mend political and business fences, help was also coming from an unlikely source.

Jules Belkin is the head of Belkin Productions, an entertainment promotions company. He’s also a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors. Belkin lobbied hard to bring the museum to Cleveland.

Jules Belkin- At that time in 85-86, our downtown area was a disaster. I think the city itself would recognize that we had a pretty bad downtown, there really was nothing to do. The restaurant scene was minimal entertainment generally was confined to the major public hall and that was prior to the arena of course being built, the stadium being built. The city needed a catalyst, needed something to put itself back on the map, make itself a destination point for people not only in this area, outside the area throughout the United States and ultimently internationally. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame filled that bill.

MW- The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame foundation is based in New York. So naturally the big apple was originally planned as the location for the Rock Hall, but for various reasons it didn’t work out. Belkin says foundation members decided to give the honor to the city that wanted to the museum the most and could financially support it. The whole town pulled together to make it happen.

JB- Well it was a massive effort on the part of Cleveland - ultimately I think there was about 600,000 names that came to New York from Cleveland, compared to maybe 65,000-70,000 out of Philadelphia, something out of San Francisco so as a popular vote certainly Cleveland was way ahead of the game.

MW- Belkin believes the announcement that the Rock Hall was being built downtown on the water had a major influence on lighting the spark that put several other projects in motion.

JB- There is no question there was a snowball that started with rock and roll. Again the mayor started negotiating with the gunds to come back into Cleveland, come back from the coliseum build the area here. If you take a look at what has happened over the years since the building, or say the knowledge rock and roll was going to be here. People start jumping on the band wagon, the other larger facilities were built, the science museum, and new restaurants today the restaurant scene in downtown is equally as good as any other city of it’s size and even larger.

MW- Economic expert Richard Shatten remembers the controversial Gateway Project as one of the turning points in the Cleveland comeback. The project was first dreamed up by city leaders in 1989 and was later approved by voters. The plan allowed the city to impose a sin tax to help cover the construction of the Gund Srena, the home of the Cavaliers basketball team and Lumberjacks hockey. And just across the way, the new tax also helped to pay for Jacobs Field, the home of the Indians.

RS- The 80s was a time I think of material turn-around, was a time when the business leaders decided to not abandon, but to come back together and fight hard to make it a different place. I think in my own mind, what do Isee as different. It really when believe it or not we had this vote for gateway back in 1990 I think was the election when there was one of the highest turn outs in the county’s history for a non-gubernatorial election and the project won by something on the order of 15,000 votes. And in some ways that said to me for the first time this region voted for an affirmative future instead of voting to sort of reinforce the pride of the fight. And so, 1990-2000 this has been a time of genuine growth. You can see it, you can see the downtown as a very different place which otherwise would look like just another tired 1950s downtown.

MW- Gateway was off the ground and downtown was being rebuilt, but locals still needed a good dose of civic pride. The job fell on people like Terry Uhl and organizations like “Cleveland Today.”

TU- Going back to what we faced in the 70s and early 80s actually our organization’s first charge was to do a better job of marketing Cleveland to Clevelanders so that they felt better about the community, so that as they were telling their friends and relatives and co-workers in other areas of the country about what was going on they had some positive things to talk about at a time when there were some negative things. We think we’ve somewhat overcome that. While there is probably still more that could be done. We don’t have that kind of program in place anymore.

MW- Convincing the average citizen to be proud of Cleveland is one thing, but the corporate world is another. Uhl feels many executives may not have realize what were missing in the search for skilled workers who may be avoiding the area.

TU- There were some C.E.O.s that were not sure we really had a problem. And if you think about it by the time that somebody gets tom them they’ve said yes a number of times they want the job what we went back and tried to get evidence of how many no are we getting, how many people when they get the call from the HR recruiter or from the search firm, they describe the package and the jobs in Cleveland, is there a pause, do they need more time to think about it, is it an issue. And what we’ve found it’s not so much an issue with the job itself and the company it’s telling the spouse, telling the family, telling the in-laws, telling the neighbors because unfortunately people still hear the jokes of Cleveland and so we have run into that a little bit.

MW- Uhl feels the study should be used to point to the need for greater public relations efforts.

TU- The study we did is to help put that in black and white, that we still need to work on this if this community is going to grow with new businesses. And especially what has been a very tight job market in terms of the economy we gotta make sure were getting our fair share of the best people out there. And right now were not sure that’s the case. We gotta do a better job of telling them why there gonna love living in Cleveland. Or getting them here again I’ll go back to the folks we talked to who do this stuff, once they get the recruit here for the weekend it’s a level playing field with almost any other are of the country. So that when that phone call comes or when that decision comes the image of Cleveland is not a factor.

MW- Apparently the city has improved to the point that a tour of the Cleveland is enough to convince outsiders this really is the comeback city.

TU- We need to spend a lot more money telling people what Cleveland really is. But we also need to make sure it’s a multi faceted effort. While a $3-$5 million national ad campaign sounds good compared to what national advertisers spend to move their products, it’s peanuts. We’ve studied what other cities have spent to market themselves and we are at the bottom of the list there too. There’s no reason we should have to continue to put up with this image on the other hand some folks say it’s a generation thing and as those who lived and heard of the problems Cleveland had in the of the 70s, as those people move on and aren’t in decision making roles anymore we probably won’t have to deal with it as much.

MW- Cleveland Mayor Michael White has been in office for a decade and has seen much of the transition.

Michael White- Through various projects we’ve gotten people to believe in the community again, we’ve gotten people to believe in themselves, we’ve gotten people to believe in our institutions, we’ve gotten people to believe in our future, and we’ve gotten people to understand that if we work together we can really make a difference. If you were to ask somebody else, they would say, well Gateway or rock and roll or the Browns or the new homes that are now first in terms of new home sales in Cleveland. Those are the outcomes of something far more personal, those are the outcomes of people in the communities, that say you know “were pretty good” we can do this, we can achieve we can bump and twist with the best of them. You know Detroit, Baltimore, we don’t have anything to hang our head down. We don’t have any reason to be ashamed, we don’t have any reason when somebody says a disparaging word about Cleveland, leaving the room and kind of go in the corner and act like we’ve done something wrong. We can run with the big dogs.

MW- Patricia Cirillo of the Cypress Research Group says the news what all bad. The report shows getting people to the north coast is most of the battle in changing old perceptions.

PC- People that are familiar with Cleveland, that is they have visited Cleveland within the past few years were 3 times as likely to consider either moving here or moving a business here. Which wasn’t true for all the other cities. So although our image suffers, the reality is a pleasant surprise, to know us is to love us.

MW- Public relations efforts may be under-funded, and everyone agrees there is work to be done. But we must be doing something right.

Back on the streets of New Orleans most people I asked about Cleveland actually had good things to say.

Cleveland is a good place, I’ve always had a good impression of it. Cleveland is a joke, ya know Cleveland I’d go anywhere before I’d go to Cleveland, but the image has changed a lot in the last 10 years at least, ya about the last 10 years. When you thing of Cleveland what do you think of - Drew Carey and Mimi - is that a positive image… yes, yes. Regular people. All I’ve heard about Cleveland’s been good. If your company were to transfer you there would you go. I’m self employed. But if I worked for a company, the opportunity was there yes I would move. The image that was, is changed dramatically, honestly I can say that the only thing that you haven’t been able to change is the weather. 20 years ago it had a bad rep and it deserved it, but I think they’ve really cleaned up their act and they’ve really revitalized the city. Everything I’ve heard about it.

There may be consolation in not having a more desirable image. After all, cities like Seattle, Washington, Portland, Oregon, and Austin, Texas are now suffering from their popularity. Some citizens long for the days when they were considered farming and lumber communities or unsophisticated cowboy hamlets. Many hip and happening places are now choked with congestion and have seen real estate prices go through the roof. In Cleveland, Mike West, 90.3 WCPN 90.3 FM.

Additional Information

* Western Reserve Historical Society
* Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum

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