Opinion

Opinion

Can Springfield Learn from Cleveland?

By NANCY URBCHAT

Four years ago, I attended my first Initiative for a Competitive Inner City (ICIC) Conference in Washington, D.C. It was thrilling to spend two days in the company of some very smart people who have dedicated their professional lives to reinvigorating cities. I came away so moved and armed with verifiable facts that I felt compelled to advocate for a more vibrant small-business environment in my own city — Springfield.
This year’s conference, held in Cleveland, Ohio, held a special attraction for me. Having grown up in Northeastern Ohio, I was particularly interested in reconnecting with a city that had, by most accounts, befallen a fate typical of Rust Belt cities. I knew I had to make the investment and attend.
I was not disappointed. Day one featured panelists from Cleveland. One discussion focused around the integral role the Cleveland Foundation has played in Cleveland’s recovery. The foundation’s top priority is strengthening the urban core, and, to that end, it has made economic-development grants totaling $85 million since 2006.
The Cleveland Foundation is also a power broker, bringing Case Western Reserve and competitors University Hospital and the Cleveland Clinic to the table. Today, these powerhouse players are transforming public transportation, the economic vibrancy of the region’s small businesses, and the health and well-being of several distressed neighborhoods.
Collectively, they have made significant investment in the city’s rapid transit, known as the HealthLine. Its tagline, “It’s not a bus. It’s not a train. It’s the future” provides a sense of the project’s magnitude. Travel down Euclid Avenue — a once-distressed, 9.8-mile thoroughfare — and see urban transformation at its best. Billions of dollars in economic investment have happened thanks to the combined efforts of this public/private partnership, a visionary transit authority, a willing city government, and federal and state public transportation dollars.
Another topic was the importance of buying local and developing a standard definition of exactly what that means. Consider University Hospital. The organization has completely redefined and restructured its purchasing policies. Any project with a value of $20,000 or more must include bids from local companies. Many of the revised policies now make it feasible for small businesses to successfully compete on, and win, business.
Cleveland Clinic has launched ‘Meet the Neighbor’ events in some of the most distressed adjacent neighborhoods. A homeowner is recruited who serves as host for a neighborhood gathering. The clinic provides refreshments and a facilitator. Neighbors are often meeting one another for the first time. The facilitator engages neighbors in an exploration of neighborhood problems.
Together, they identify a pressing problem and roll up their sleeves to solve it. Sometimes it takes more than sweat to solve urban problems. Cleveland Clinic provides grants of up to $5,000 to assist these local problem solvers.
Upon my return to the City of Homes, I asked myself, “why not in Springfield?” My opinion is that economic-development initiatives have largely taken a back seat to the casino proposal. Certainly, an $800 million project is sure to get people’s attention, but my guess is the casino was never intended as a panacea and the be-all, end-all of economic development. Yet, that is what it appears to have become. For the record, Cleveland’s new casino was never mentioned once during the conference.
Vision and leadership were also in evidence in Cleveland. Mayor Frank Jackson and members of his economic-development team also appeared on the conference roster. Smart, capable, and committed people are working in concert with the partners I listed earlier. People working in silos don’t transform cities.
Finally, there’s an intangible at work. Let’s call it the love factor. People who participate in the ICIC love cities. In particular, they have a passion for their work and the well-being of their respective cities. They also happen to have positions of power and authority. Somehow they have come to the realization that transforming cities requires one’s self-interest to take a back seat to the greater good.
That may sound a bit ‘pie in the sky,’ but that seems to be what’s at work in Cleveland and Detroit. And I, for one, would love to see that happen in Springfield.

Nancy Urbchat is a principal with Springfield-based TSM Design.

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