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Race Left Out of Regionalism Discussions

Thursday, June 21, 2007 at 9:55 AM

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When the topic of regionalism comes up, most often its in the context of communities sharing resources - fire and police protection, snow plows, even tax revenue. But a new study looking at Northeast Ohio points in a different direction. It contends that Cleveland is often left out of discussions on regionalism and says race is at the heart of that exclusion. ideastream's economics reporter Tasha Flournoy has details.

After three years of study the Presidents’ Council, a group of black executives, has concluded that Cleveland is being marginalized when it comes to talk of regional cooperation. They came up with a 300-age report with 50 recommendations on how to achieve better regional solutions on such issues as education, housing, the quality of health care.

Here’s one of the study’s authors, John Powell of the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State.

John Powell: Often times in regional discussions in part because issue of fairness, the issue of equity is left out. Often times the African American community or other marginalized communities. Sometimes the Latino community. They’re brought in as an afterthought. The don’t participate in the conversation ‘til the last minute and sometimes they’re leery.

What’s happening, according to the report, is that majority white communities that surround Cleveland sometimes get together to talk about consolidating services or even merging with similar suburbs but no one wants to merge with majority black Cleveland.

On the other hand, Cleveland’s African-American leaders don’t want to merge with the suburbs for fear of their power being diluted. In fact, Powell says this new study is not advocating regional government or mergers.

John Powell: Our focus was on equity. And, how to achieve outcomes that fair for everyone.

For Powell and the other authors of the study, equity means things like suburban schools opening their doors to Cleveland school kids and Cleveland getting the resources to build more MAGNET schools that might be good enough to attract suburban students. It means expanded public transit so that more Cleveland residents can take the bus to more outer ring suburbs where the jobs are. It means cities and developers building more affordable housing in the suburbs, homes the working poor of Cleveland could afford.

But why would wealthy, white suburbs want Cleveland students from poor homes and poor schools in its schools, why would suburban taxpayers want to pay for more public transportation, why would developers want to build houses that bring them less profit? The answer, according to the report, is that it is in the whole region’s interest to do so. They contend that the suburbs future economic health is tied to Cleveland’s. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson says the argument makes total sense to him.

Frank Jackson: What you see, you see something that is a necessity now. That everyone agrees upon. Everyone agrees that those areas are the areas we must address as a region in order to survive.

Well, not everyone. Many officials in the region say it all comes down to practical incentives. And an argument based on the general welfare of the region sometime in the future simply doesn’t seem that pressing to suburbs that are prospering now.

Some champions of regionalism such as Parma Heights Mayor Marty Zanotti say this report and its 50 recommendations don’t move the real issues forward very much. He says the one proposed on education is reminiscent of failed attempts at bussing. He sees the report as one-dimensional.

Marty Zanotti: Here’s the problem with some of these reports. And there’s a lot of good things in this report. The problem is they’re conceptual. And in this region we’ve had concept until we’re ready to fall over dead. And, what’s missing in this report is how and who.

A big “how” question is how will any of this be paid for. But, The Presidents Council plans to take some action and answer the how and who through a series of public forums in the coming weeks and months.

The City of Cleveland will also consider the report’s recommendations. The city’s new regional development director Chris Warren plans to come up with some action steps based on the report by the fall. Tasha Flournoy, 90.3.

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