Moreno Taps Tower City As New Hub For Tech, Blockchain

Proposed vision for The Avenue as a tech and blockchain hub.
Proposed vision for The Avenue as a tech and blockchain hub. [Blockland]

Armed with new funders, Cleveland entrepreneur Bernie Moreno says Bedrock Detroit LLC, the real estate firm owned by Dan Gilbert, is now fully onboard with turning The Avenue Shops at Tower City into a hub for tech businesses and blockchain, an easily shared digital ledger system.

The Greater Cleveland Partnership, The Cleveland Foundation, Team NEO, JumpStart and The Fund for the Economic Future are collaborating on what has been dubbed “the Cleveland Innovation Project” Moreno told Cuyahoga County Council's Business and Finance Committee Monday. The hope is for the center to inspire more great business ideas in Cleveland, he said. 

"We've been working on this for six, seven months, not the greatest-kept secret in Cleveland, but we are looking at reimagining The Avenue Shops at Tower City as a center for entrepreneurship," Moreno said.

Moreno has been selling off his 15-dealership car empire for months so he could dedicate his time and finances more fully to growing Ownum, his recently-launched blockchain technology company that aims to put car titles on blockchain in all 50 states, and his “Blockland” effort to make Cleveland a blockchain hub.

“Following an extensive study of potential ways to adapt The Avenue Shops at Tower City Center to a use that better fits the needs of a growing and even more dynamic downtown Cleveland, Bedrock has entered into discussions with the Blockland community to reimagine this historic landmark into a project we have dubbed ‘CityBlock’,” said Bedrock Chairman Jim Ketai in a Monday statement. “We continue to work together toward a shared goal of bringing CityBlock to life as a hub for entrepreneurship in the heart of Cleveland with access to neighborhoods throughout the city.”

Monday kicked off a four-month period for Blockland to strengthen their proposal and organize funding for the new project The Avenue at Tower City, Moreno said. If it makes financial sense for Bedrock, the project would move forward in November and Moreno's hopes to have tenants start moving in next summer. Plans include some component of public funding, he said, though numbers are still vague.

"My gut tells me we're going to be somewhere around $100 million for the renovations, at least that's what I personally think is required to really transform the space the right way," Moreno said.

Moreno said he believes the Cleveland International Film Festival and CityBlock can co-exist at Tower City and they plan on utilizing the theater space when possible.

"I think the theaters are really important to keep there as a community asset because those theaters will work for the entrepreneur environment," Moreno said. "When you have meetings like this, you're going to have them in a theater, right?"

Bedrock would still maintain ownership of Tower City and be the landlord, but there's the possibility of partnerships.

"[We're] exploring the idea that Bedrock would bring in equity partners," Moreno said. "So you could buy equity in CityBlock where you would be an owner with Bedrock, which is kind of cool."

Moreno stressed that collaboration was key to a project like this and any potential future for Cleveland and blockchain. He hopes the center will inspire more great business ideas.

"The idea behind this is that entrepreneurs need to feel that they're not alone,” Moreno said. “If I have an idea and somebody else has an idea and we meet, those two ideas become better than the individual ones and from there the magic happens. We call it serendipitous collisions."

Tower City’s transit-hub status and easy accessibility make it unique and attractive for a new business center, Moreno said. But the plan may also call for some big traffic changes in the area, including to “close Prospect Street between Morton's West to the next intersection and create what we call Prospect Park," Moreno said. "A place for pedestrians, outdoor cafes, et cetera, and the idea is that the transit hub, this is where people would come out."

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