City Club Forum Focuses On How Downtowns Can Survive The Pandemic

A Cleveland script sign at the Lake Erie waterfront overlooking Downtown Cleveland.
[f11photo / Shutterstock]

The downtown areas of major cities across the country are bare as employees have vacated their high rise offices to work from home during the pandemic. But during Thursday’s City Club of Cleveland forum, three experts spelled out why they believe downtown areas are resilient, even in the face of COVID-19. 

Joe Marinucci, the President and CEO of the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, said that this year has brought unforeseen challenges not only from the coronavirus pandemic but also in the form of protests for racial justice that have swept through America’s cities. Still, Marinucci said he remains optimistic about the future of Downtown Cleveland. 

Marinucci said so far, about 30 percent of workers have returned to their offices Downtown. 

“We know that the office market has not returned to where it was pre-pandemic level and it’s going to take a while for that to occur and we understand that,” he said. Still, he said he’s confident that Cleveland is the type of place where young professionals want to live, and they will be the economic engine that drives the city. 

“People want to be with other people,” he said. “That’s where they’re most creative, that’s where they’re most entrepreneurial.”

Tami Door, the President and CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership as well as the Chairman of the International Downtown Association, said she believes Cleveland is “incredibly well positioned going forward.” 

“I think that your culture, your nature, your parks these are things that urban centers across the country are dying to make happen in their communities,” Door said. “You are resilient, you have that infrastructure, and now this is your chance to leverage it.”  

Door said one of Cleveland’s greatest assets is its affordability. 

She also said Midwest cities like Cleveland have been having frank conversations about race and racial justice for far longer than Western cities such as Denver, where she said conversations tend to be more “academic” in nature. She said Cleveland has an opportunity to not only grow as a result of the racial justice movement but also guide a more open conversation nationwide. 

Door said cities that are not experiencing civil unrest are “not vibrant or vital cities.” 

“As tough as it is to take when damage gets done - certainly not advocating for that - but what it does tell you is that when people gather in your city, they love it because they believe it’s a place where their voice can be heard. So if you still have that you’re still on the right track even if it doesn’t seem like that during these times,” she said.

Cleveland has seen protests advocating for social justice throughout the summer, and the majority of those protests have been peaceful. 

Door also cautioned urban areas against setting long-term policy as a reaction to the coronavirus pandemic.

“Don’t get mired and trapped in, “How do we get through this?” and “What’s the office market now?” she said. “Let’s think about how we build our cities and how you build Cleveland to prepare for the market of the future.”

Marinucci said the city has been working with Downtown businesses to create safe ways to do business during the pandemic. For instance, several mini-parks called parklets have opened outside of restaurants, providing space for patrons to go to restaurants while also maintaining a safe social distance. 

Downtown areas worldwide have seen not only their hospitality industries but also their shops and theaters suffer as a result of the pandemic. 

Ojay McDonald, the CEO of the Association of Town & City Management and a Londoner, said that it’s possible to go to a store and maintain a safe social distance. But that’s not true for the entertainment and leisure businesses that rely on bringing people together. 

“We’ve got to understand what the future is for our entertainment and our leisure sectors and understand how we can innovate and recreate some of those experiences while still adhering to things like social distancing,” he said. 

Figuring out ways to bring people together in the middle of a pandemic is a “massive challenge,” McDonald said, particularly when it comes to younger generations who want to socialize and “need to be with other people.” 

Cleveland is home to America’s second largest theater district outside of New York City, where many performances have either been canceled or postponed because of the pandemic. 

Cleveland’s Tower City Cinemas, once home to the Cleveland International Film Festival, has closed permanently, in part due to the pandemic

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