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The Cleveland-Cuyahoga Port Authority Is Asking for a Levy Renewal -- So What Does the Port Even Do?

Train cars on the port are loaded with rolled steel from overseas. (Nick Castele / ideastream)
Train cars on the port are loaded with rolled steel from overseas. (Nick Castele / ideastream)

When the chair of the Port's board of directors, Mark Krantz, campaigns for the levy, sometimes he runs into a problem. It happened to him this month meeting with the Young Professional Senate.

"It sounds like this group knows a little bit, so I don't need to, but I'll ask anyway just to make sure," Krantz said. "Does everybody know what the port does and what our basic function is?"

No, two people at the meeting told him.

That basic function can be seen at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River.

Big rolls of steel from overseas rest on the docks. About a mile away on the other side of the river, a ship unloads limestone from a long conveyor belt arm. There are big piles of iron ore from Minnesota around us. The ore is headed up the river to ArcelorMittal to be made into steel.

The port's staff is small: less than 20 employees, says port CEO Will Friedman. In fact, the port authority's primary job is to maintain these docks for others to use.

"And that's typical, a lot of ports are not directly involved in the operations," Friedman said. "We're more sort of like the landlord and we make the facility available to private companies that hire the longshoremen."

The port makes money by charging fees for storage and docking.

And for years it has depended on an operating levy that currently raises a bit more than $3 million a year. Friedman says the levy goes to the port's maritime operations, and toward keeping the river clear for commerce.

"Maintaining the harbor, cleaning up the harbor and the ship channel, addressing some of the issues that have the been outstanding for a number of years," Friedman said. "Including what's called Irishtown Bend or Franklin hill, which is unstable and kind of sliding down toward the river."

Why is all this important to taxpayers?

Proponents of the levy say allowing the port or shipping channels to degrade could ripple through the local economy. The levy campaign cites a study commissioned by the port that linked the Cleveland harbor system to nearly 18,000 jobs in the year 2008, some directly and most in other ways.

John Carroll professor Bradley Hull, who has worked with the port, explains.

"The cargoes go to say steel companies and the steel companies employ people," Hull said. "Then there's a whole second industry, the restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores that support these people."

Now, that number includes the economic impact of private docks, not just those run by the port.

Not everyone agrees that renewing the levy is critical to the port -- or the economy.

Jim Trutko is an economic consultant who doubts whether jobs will dry up if the renewal effort fails. He says international cargo can get to Cleveland other ways.

Another of Trutko's objections is that the port occupies valuable real estate at the mouth of the river that could be used for recreation, restaurants and retail.

"And what do we have on it?" Trutko asked. "We have piles of cement, we have limestone, we have a bunch of old warehouses. That is a 1950s, 1960s vision of the city."

The port's previous CEO did pursue a plan to move out of downtown. But eventually the port abandoned it, and since then it has given up some land for proposed retail.

Those questions aside, Ned Hill, the dean of the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University, says keeping steel plant ArcelorMittal supplied with iron ore through the port -- it's important.

"And if you don't think it is, realize that that mill supplies sheet steel to Honda in Marysville, to Lordstown and it will play a role in the Ford plant in Avon Lake when it gets up and down," Hill said. "I mean, that's a critical plant."

Friedman, the port CEO, says the levy money doesn't go toward the port's other role as a financing agency, selling bonds for projects like the Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame and Browns Stadium.

Whether voters renew this levy that has funded the port for years, or cut off the flow of property tax dollars, will be decided next week.

That port levy renewal, which supporters stress will not raise the current tax, is one of three tax proposals on the Cuyahoga County ballot next Tuesday. Another is a health and human services replacement levy, which does call for an increase. The third is a modest levy increase to support the Cleveland Metroparks, which has recently taken over additional park facilities from the state.

Nick Castele is a senior reporter covering politics and government for Ideastream Public Media.