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Cleveland mayor talks safety, waterfront development in State of the City address

Mayor Justin Bibb delivers the 2024 State of the City address at the Mimi Ohio Theatre
Ygal Kaufman
Ideastream Public Media
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb touted accomplishments and said it was time for Cleveland to regain its confidence in his 2024 State of the City address at the Mimi Ohio Theatre in Playhouse Square.

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb presented a long list of highlights in his third State of the City Address Thursday, and laid out plans for the future as he gears up for a re-election bid next year.

Bibb began his speech at the Mimi Ohio Theatre in Playhouse Square by touting accomplishments that he'd promised when running for mayor. He said a "modern and responsive City Hall" is well underway.

"I took office with a fresh perspective and energy to build a City Hall that works for you," Bibb said. "But before you can tackle big things, you need a firm foundation."

With a 10-year strategic plan completed, he noted that the city has launched a new, mobile-friendly website, streamlined payment processes for contractors, reevaluated trash collection routes for the first time in more than 50 years, installed credit-card-enabled parking meters and rolled out mobile parking software, and modernized human resources policies to attract more city employees.

'All hands on deck' for public safety

Bibb said Public safety continues to be top of mind for him and for Cleveland's residents. With ongoing gun violence and a mass shooting jarring Downtown's Warehouse District last summer, Bibb called his response an "all hands on deck" approach.

Despite the dwindling number of officers in the Cleveland Division of Police, where unfilled positions have been slashed from the budget for two straight years, Bibb pointed to state and federal partnerships cracking down on gun violence and drug activity last summer, resulting in hundreds of felony warrant arrests and illegal gun confiscations. He said those partnerships, part of his Raising Investment in Safety for Everyone initiative, combined with technology investments like the expansion of ShotSpotter, are working. Homicides are down for the second straight year and have decreased 14% since the pandemic.

Still, police staffing has been of great concern to members of Cleveland City Council. Bibb assured residents, and the members of Council that were present, that he is working on new strategies to recruit and retain officers. He pointed to the largest wage increase for officers and cadets in city history, as well as the establishment of a 12-hour shift for officers that allows for more time off.

And Bibb said those methods are working. Applications to join the police force are up 45%, and the new class of 52 cadets is larger than the previous four classes combined.

But Bibb acknowledged trust in police is something that may be missing in some communities. He noted that this year marks the 10 year anniversary of the death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who was shot and killed by a Cleveland Police officer.

"We are committed to honoring Tamir's legacy through community oversight and police accountability," Bibb said.

Cleveland remains under a 2015 federal consent decree to improve policing practices in the city after a Department of Justice investigation found a pattern or practice of excessive force.

Bibb talks education as $143 million schools deficit looms

On the heels of last year's State of the City address, which Bibb delivered at East Technical High School, much changed in the landscape of the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, including a major leadership shift.

CEO Warren Morgan, who took the helm about seven months ago from outgoing CEO Eric Gordon, was left with a looming $143 million deficit expected next fiscal year.

Bibb said he no longer wants to allocate city funding to "keep up" with aging school buildings built at a time when Cleveland's population was triple the size, but instead fund afterschool programs and tools for teachers.

The mayor said the city will need to make "hard and necessary choices" with students in mind.

"We can’t continue to operate with an outdated building footprint," he said.

"Our kids deserve excellent resources across our schools – from Collinwood to West Park and everywhere in between," he said. "School leaders should not have to choose between cutting programs and keeping the heat on."

Bibb takes aim at 'predatory landlords,' promises equitable investments

Bibb also took aim at Cleveland's absent and out-of-state landlords and vowed to crack down on negligent property owners. Last month, Cleveland City Council passed Bibb's sweeping housing code overhaul, which included a point of sale inspection requirement when vacant properties change hands and mandating that out-of-area property owners employ a local agent responsible for tenants’ issues.

"Predatory landlords have been getting a free ride in Cleveland," he said. "Those days are over."

The Building and Housing Department, which received an additional 20 inspector positions in its budget, is working to staff up to enforce the new policies.

The problem is particularly dismal on the city's East Side, where Cleveland's Black population is more concentrated: a recent city study found that more than half of the homes purchased there in the last 20 years were by non-owner-occupants, as opposed to 24% on the city's West Side.

Bibb, who grew up on the city's Southeast Side, vowed to keep making investments in the area. In addition to a $15 million investment from federal stimulus dollars, Bibb announced Thursday that the city has began a search for project teams to work on enhancing 20 acres of city-owned properties in the Lee-Harvard neighborhood.

"To my Southeast Side family: I see you," Bibb said. "City Hall sees you. We are celebrating the vitality of the neighborhoods that I came from, and working hand-in-hand to address the issues that we face."

Downtown, waterfront development is coming

Bibb wrapped up his speech discussing perhaps his most ambitious and long-term plan: developing Downtown and its waterfronts.

"Our waterfronts should be places of healing and community," he said. "But access to the lakefront is far from equal, due to decades of division and disinvestment."

The Shore-to-Core-to-Shore plan promises to tap into Cleveland's "most underutilized" assets by building out more than 20 acres of green space, a Downtown beach, viewing vistas, a pedestrian land bridge, mixed-income residential and retail space and more.

Earlier this week, Cleveland City Council established Bibb's Shore-to-Core-to-Shore tax increment finance district to fund that plan. The economic development tool will take increases in property taxes on most of Downtown and parts of Ohio City building and funnel it toward other projects, including the Downtown development plans. Bibb previously stated at least 35% of the funds will eventually flow go to city neighborhoods.

Notably missing from Bibb's speech was any mention of the Cleveland Browns and the city-owned lakefront stadium after the team announced his has an option to purchase 200 acres in Brook Park. The city is negotiating with the team for renovations to the existing stadium. A new, domed stadium near Cleveland Hopkins International Airport has been floated by team owners as a possible alternative.

"We've been in consistent communications with the Browns and the Haslam over the last two years since I took office," Bibb told reporters after his address. "We're in the middle of negotiations, so I can't comment too specifically on the details of those negotiations. ... We want to have a competitive, but fair and responsible deal that keeps the Browns in Cleveland."

Protesters disrupt speech

Pro-Palestinian supporters interrupted Bibb's speech twice, shouting over him from the balcony of the theater.

The first disruption came early on in his speech when a man stood up and began shouting, "40,000 Palestinians have died. ... You have still not rescinded your support of Israel." Bibb made a social media post supporting Israel following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel that killed 1,100 people.

Bibb encouraged the audience to let the man speak, and ultimately told people to applaud for freedom of speech. The man was promptly removed from the theater.

As Bibb brought up the anniversary of Tamir Rice's death, another protester shouted, "You don't care about children," and began chanting, "Mayor Bibb you can’t hide, you’re supporting genocide."

"Thank you, sir," Bibb responded as the person was removed.

Earlier this week, Cleveland City Council passed a resolution supporting a cease-fire in Gaza after five months of refusing to do so despite persistent calls by pro-Palestinian protesters. The resolution came the same day the United Nations Security Council passed a similar resolution after more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israeli ground and air strikes.

"I understand the pain and the grief and the tragedy that we're seeing, in the Middle East, the conflict between Israel and Hamas," Bibb told reporters after his address. "I don't like to comment on foreign policy because I'm the mayor of Cleveland. ... This is a complicated, nuanced issue, and I want to make sure that we have a city where people feel heard or they have a voice and where they feel seen. And I just pray for peace in the conflict."

Abbey Marshall covers Cleveland-area government and politics for Ideastream Public Media.