Making Change: Growth Association Merger Hopes to Energize Cleveland Economy

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For the moment, they're calling it "Greater Cleveland Tomorrow." Just as the name will eventually change, so will the exact structure of the new organization. Members of Cleveland Tomorrow, the Growth Association and the Roundtable started entertaining consolidation about a year ago, says Joe Roman, the new group's president and CEO. Each association wanted to strengthen their effectiveness and they realized their agendas have largely been in sync over the past few years. After some consideration, Roman says, merging seemed the best plan.

Joe Roman: We're going to put the different minds and talents and resources of small, medium and large size businesses together so that as we consider and agree on job creation agendas, it's with all of that input. So that we can hopefully prioritize where we can have the greatest impact.

Roman says first and foremost, the group's purpose is job creation. It's about retaining and attracting business, improving the region's physical development, fostering a spirit of entrepreneurship and bolstering workforce development efforts. The merger is nothing to be alarmed at, says Bill Bryant, past president of the Growth Association from 1980 to 1995. He says Cleveland's business groups have been merging and splintering for the last 60 years.

Bill Bryant: It's cyclical. They travel in cycles. It's nothing unusual, although I think Cleveland probably does it a little bit more than the average large city.

Bryant recalls the period after the river caught fire, after Cleveland's default, when Cleveland became the butt of the nation's jokes... at that time the Greater Cleveland Chamber of Commerce was re-incarnated as the Growth Association and Cleveland Tomorrow was eventually born as well. Groups were formed to handle technology development... race-relations... education. Now the trend is reversing in response to the current shift in the economy, Bryant says.

Bill Bryant: Mark my word in ten to 15 years, there will be a movement to split off those because special interest groups will feel you're not spending as much time on their special interests. And that's a healthy sign. It's a healthy sign for a city to have these kinds of movements and this kind of change.

The reason for the reform this time, is the transformation in Cleveland's leadership, says Ned Hill, professor of Urban Studies at Cleveland State University. There are fewer Fortune 500 corporations and more small businesses. Hill says it's also due to feistier elected officials, more grass roots organizations and media that are bringing new voices to the table.

Ned Hill: Yes, corporate membership is thinner and may speak with a unified voice, but there's a lot of other interest groups that have expression now that I don't think existed ten years ago.

The question is will those newer voices have a setting at the business community's new table? Not yet, says Holly Harlan, director of Entrepreneurs for Sustainability an organization that supports ventures that implement sustainable principles. But Harlan says it may be too soon for groups like hers to be part of the nascent Greater Cleveland Growth - or whatever its name will be - because at this point the new organization is still laying the legal groundwork for exactly what it will look like.

Holly Harlan: And as they decide who they're going to serve, I think that they'll bring whoever would help them serve that constituency the most to the table. And so I think that we're participating at many tables but not that particular table you're talking about.

The man at the head of that table, Joe Roman, says it will take all kinds to make the venture a success. But it's the business community that has the best understanding.

Joe Roman: Understanding of what it takes to compete, understanding of what it takes to grow. And those are the items that we're going to try to advance, but advance with people not against people: with people. So I really view it - again - as an opportunity to bring big, large, small, traditional, non-traditional business people into a common organization that can advance the right things.

Consolidating resources by merging organizations has been tested elsewhere. Pittsburgh's experiment has been bubbling for less than a year. Mike Langley, the CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, says there is a pitfall to a merger. Even if all the business groups are on board and everyone agrees on the desired outcome, there's one last piece that has to fall into place: mindset.

Mike Langley: If you haven't been able to establish in your region a mindset that change is good, it's OK to try something new and fail and try again... then no matter what you do in terms of regional structure or organizational structure, you're not going to win.

Roman and the other leaders of the new group are optimistic. After all, Roman says, just starting the ball rolling by creating the merged group is in itself an investment that may prove to be risky but also could be quite fruitful. In Cleveland, Shula Neuman, 90.3.

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