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State of the City

State of the City

In an effort to figure out just what the hell is going on in our city, who better to ask than the various experts who live and work here? We reached out to various community leaders, local celebrities, and business owners to see what they think about the state of Cleveland in 2020.

Editor’s note: Some responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Monica Robins | WKYC

Cleveland Rocks plain and simple, but it’s never a bad thing to shake things up a little more. Bringing The Bachelor here, despite the original disdain of the contestants, was a brilliant move by Destination Cleveland. It not only showcased the city in a positive light, but also got the city great exposure on social media. 

I think residents here could be better cheerleaders for their hometown instead of always lamenting the poor performance of certain sports teams. Destination Cleveland is also using the city’s healthcare industry as a draw for new residents. One of the greatest trends I’ve witnessed in the past few years is the improvement of downtown living and neighborhoods. I hope that trend continues to spread and fill those empty storefronts and still blighted areas. Healthcare and medical technology provides the most jobs and is our future. 

We need to better invest in the education of our young people growing up here so they have a reason to stay or return sooner. That includes investing in Cleveland Metropolitan Schools to give students the same experiences and chances awarded to better funded suburban schools. One way you can do that is by offering to mentor a student.  

Bill Squire | Co-host Alan Cox Show on WMMS, Stand-up Comedian

Cleveland is figuring out its new self. It’s still a blue collar town, but with a little more swagger these days. I mean we got an outdoor chandelier. One thing I’ve noticed is there’s constantly different events happening all around town and it’s awesome because it wasn’t always that way. Cleveland is still rocking great museums, great food, great people, and still relatively inexpensive!

Mike Tata | Marketing Coordinator, AEG Presents and The Agora

I believe Cleveland has every right to be excited in 2020. It’s a new year, and we’re going to take another big step in the right direction. There’s a lot of potential still to see, and I’m specifically excited to see the progress in Cleveland’s Midtown District. Downtown is growing east, and University Circle is growing west, so it’s only a matter of time before Cleveland’s Midtown connects the two. This will make attending shows at The Agora even more attractive.

Aaron Sechrist | Graphic Artist, okPANTS

Looks like we’re doing pretty good? Small and DIY business is being supported in a way I don’t remember seeing before and that’s helped okPANTS get along in immeasurable ways. Edgewater Beach is also very nice now. 

I’d love to see the design and art scene grow in the same way that the local food and brewing scene has exploded over the last decade. We (artists and designers) have to meet people halfway on that in producing great work and products, and connecting with the public, but it makes no sense we don’t have at least as many galleries and adjacent events as there are craft breweries. I really don’t know. I’m here too much and I don’t work for the tourism bureau. I’d love to see Tower City Mall turned into a water park. Put a lazy river somewhere around Cleveland.

Laura Wimbels | Photographer, Faces of Cleveland // Co-owner, Designer, Sultan’s Press

I’ve watched more and more friends get squeezed out of Lakewood and Gordon Square in the past two years. I say this while sitting in my modest three-bedroom home that I bought seven years ago for $60k in West Park, but holy shit – those $450k-plus townhouses in Gordon Square are truly insane. I knew we were doomed when they started valet parking on Detroit Avenue a few years back, but where are people getting the money to buy these things? Additionally, those of you who can afford to live there, can I interest you in a nice photography book for your expensive coffee table or a handmade t-shirt perhaps? Visit my websites, and, I’ll gladly take your money too! 

I really don’t want to see the West Side Market fall by the wayside. My god, the people of Cleveland need those pizza bagels Frickaccio’s sells. I need those pizza bagels. The city really needs to get it together so we don’t lose our city’s crown jewel due to piss poor management.

Mark Lammon | Executive Director, Campus District

The city is continuing on an upward trajectory and unlike other times in Cleveland history, our growth is more sustainable and mixed use which should prevent us from drastic burst in our development. We’re finally trying to ensure that all of the neighborhoods of this city benefit from our Downtown economic engine. 

For the first time in my career, there seems to be real effort to break down barriers for access to the region’s resources. The region is still developing sprawl despite us knowing this isn’t sustainable with our low population growth and now there’s even a pushback against density in some of our urban neighborhoods. We continue to have the same discussion on regionalism that we’ve been having for 20 years. We need to speed up our infrastructure upgrades, especially projects that provide more equitable access to jobs and education. It’s more bike lanes, public art that brings groups together that would not normally talk, a fully funded RTA, and joining the rest of the world by having credit card parking meters.

Aseelah Shareef | Director of Operations and Community Engagement, Karamu House

Cultural arts in Cleveland is thriving. Cleveland has immense cultural capital – creatives, practitioners, consumers. People in this city are interested and excited about new and varying ways to experience culture and the city doesn’t disappoint with opportunities to connect with residents/visitors and build/strengthen community through arts and culture. 

I think curators are continuing to find and define innovation in the space. Audiences have evolved. Passive experiences are no longer enough. People want to be immersed in experiences and I am seeing new ways of presenting and producing art and culture in the city.

I think our opportunities are to continue to think about who is not in the space or represented – which voices are still not in the room. As we think about art and culture, it is our responsibility to account for the needs and interests of the many and not the few.

Arts in Cleveland is by far my favorite anything about this city. I am a transplant and got my first professional dance job in Cleveland with Cleveland Contemporary Dance Theatre (CCDT). As a Florida girl (West Palm Beach to be exact), I was tempted to leave shortly after arriving, but I found CCDT and established my artistic family and that for me became a foundation and a reason to stay. I have come and gone several times since my initial arrival, but the arts in Cleveland continue to be something I’m proud of. As a dancer, I’m partial to that art form. I live and tell my own stories through movement so I celebrate dance here. In recent years, the African diasporic voice in dance has been relegated to the margins but there are some artists working very hard to change that narrative, specifically Errin Weaver of Mojuba Dance Collective and Talise Campbell of Djapo Cultural Arts who happen to be great friends and choreographers with whom I love to work. 

Cory Hajde, Owner of BravoArtists

The city seems more lively than it was when I grew up here. I moved back in July of 2019 and there’s been a lot of exciting changes. I have primarily stayed on the West Side of town for most nightlife related activities. One specific event that was cool to see here was the All-Star weekend for the MLB. They hosted some pretty huge concerts and a ton of downtown events to coincide with the weekend of activities. It was cool to see Cleveland take part in that. 

The food scene is drastically improving. I am seeing more accessible restaurants for vegetarians and vegans. A lot of niche spots that you’d typically only find in bigger cities as well. I’ve noticed that the East Side isn’t doing well. There aren’t a lot of small businesses succeeding on that side of town. The whole University Circle project has gone belly up with so many good spots closing over there. I may be a bit biased, but the West Side is even starting to get more concerts and tours even with a majority of the legendary venues being on the East Side. 

I’d love to see a better initiative on supporting small businesses in the arts, food, and nightlife industries. I think helping developers see the importance of growing Cleveland from the inside out is a start. Rooting small business practice over national chains will help develop a sense of community and support near a lot of these areas populated by colleges. I would also like to see our elected officials make use of large empty space to provide homeless shelters that are very much needed. 

Trevor Elkins | Mayor, Newburgh Heights

I think Cleveland has tremendous potential. However, political and corporate leadership living in the past is holding back an activist movement seeking to advance a positive, forward thinking culture for the next generation of Cleveland’s history. I’ve noticed that despite the canned corporate efforts to create a vision for Cleveland’s next iteration, these “movements” don’t seem to translate into transformation because of a failure to be intentional about actually taking the steps toward implementation in a way that honors the spirit of the proposals. In other words, if it changes the status quo for the class that has held power for a generation or more, the ideas are lauded in public and put on a shelf in boardrooms. 

Cleveland needs to improve on creating a new history rather than holding on to a history that is becoming increasingly obsolete. It needs to assert itself politically across Ohio and use that transformational power to advance a progressive environmental agenda for the state and nation.

Matt Chojnacki | Author/Publisher, 1984 Publishing

Cleveland was the big comeback city of the 2010s, and we’re still moving upwards and onwards. There’s no place I’d rather call home base. Plus in the arts scene, it’s one of the few areas where you can live affordably while making your film, writing your book, or crafting your craft. 

I love that Cleveland has repositioned itself from being purely a working class sports town to much more. Okay, many still hinge their feelings on the Browns, but nowadays those feelings are replaced by the next big thing happening the following weekend. And normally it’s four to five big events a weekend. That’s way up from “Hey! Rib burn-off this summer!” Cleveland’s out and about, in full force every weekend, and then on weekdays for a big game or concert. I’d love to see that at the smaller concert venues and restaurants on weekdays as well. I think that’s the next leap into big city life. 

Oh, and buy from your local book and record stores. Your LP from Amazon will likely be bent in half, anyways. If we ever get close to another Jane Scott in Cleveland, her name is Annie Zaleski. She’s a Cleveland-based music journalist that knows the entire music scene, inside and out. Every day she is on the phone with – everyone. “So I was speaking to Nick Rhodes of Duran Duran this morning, and…” is normal lunch conversation. 

John Skrtic | Director of Public Services, Cleveland Public Library

Everyone likes to see growth in the city, but for Cleveland to move ahead this decade the issue of tax abatement has to be addressed. Certain neighborhoods grow while others remain frozen in time or worse decay. Longtime proud city residents take on increasing taxes and local shared services collect less taxes while others reap rewards without having to pay their fair share. I am always optimistic about the residents and the future, but for us to fare better as a whole we must find ways to spread around the dollars to various Cleveland neighborhoods.  

A fantastic trend in Cleveland is the activation of our Lakefront by the Metroparks. Pleased that in my lifetime I am getting to witness this improvement. The trend to embrace our greatest asset has included a shift away from reliance on the automobile in a public space. Hopefully the increased use of towpath trails and clean walkable spaces will show others in the city that this investment has been successful. The expansion of this model would lead to more visitors, homeowners, and increased commerce to different quadrants of Cleveland.

Often each Saturday of my life has started with me shopping at the West Side Market. For so many years, I would structure my visit around the crowds as I knew when the busiest times would be. The last couple of years have been alarming as it is obvious that the attendance has precipitously dropped during open hours. Much has been written about the privatization of this important landmark. I am hopeful that the many concerned Clevelanders will work to improve this growing concern this year. The one thing that each person can do if they care about the West Side Market is to visit and support vendors just as generations of Clevelanders have done in the past. 

Charity D’Amato-Crawford | Founder/Designer, Studio Chartreuse

I feel like our city is constantly evolving and growing. Whether through the recent investments in public places like the Metroparks/Edgewater Beach or more private initiatives like the growth and development in Hingetown and Van Aken, it’s really fun to have new places and spaces to explore in town. I’d say we are doing pretty great! 

While I am not a real estate professional, I do love to watch the market, including all the great homes that pop up for sale in Northeast Ohio. With that said, I’ve noticed that home prices keep rising and I am concerned that we are pricing out young families and creatives who may want to invest in our region. I wonder if in the next 10 years the prices will grow? If they will drop? If we will reimagine what home-ownership looks like in Cleveland? 

As an East Sider who drives downtown a lot, I pass many neighborhoods who could use some love and support. It would be great to see Cleveland setting aside dollars and resources to help improve these communities grow and flourish. Oh, and continued repair of winter pot holes is always welcome.

John Gormon | Chief Content Officer, oWow Radio // WOW Media

Cleveland is on a positive, forward-motion upswing. Certainly, Cleveland has a crime problem, which has been danced around but not properly tackled. Cleveland will be choosing a new mayor in the next election. Will he or she be an accomplished, forward-thinking visionary or a political hack? There is no in-between in a mayoral election. Who are our emerging leaders? We need a healer, not a divider.   

There were too many Clevelanders who were in love with and would settle for mediocrity. Fortunately, those resistant to change are either losing their influence, dying off, or both.

For good trends, The Metroparks took over Edgewater Park, Wendy Park, and the Towpath Canal connection. The development of Battery Park and the surrounding areas produced a new, outstanding neighborhood with city and lake views and attracting both young people and empty nesters. The near West Side is developing and growing because of location, location, location and the abatements to stimulate growth.

It made perfect sense to connect University Circle to Little Italy to create one thriving location that one can live in, work in, and spend a day visiting. University Circle, with its museums, recreation, retail, and restaurants is one of the city’s best attractions.

For the bad, Hopkins and Burke Airport. Airports should not be managed by the city – any city. A separate entity should manage the airports and there must be a rational but aggressive campaign to improve Hopkins and increase direct and international flights. This isn’t a chicken or egg situation. A fully functional airport will attract new businesses to the region. Once and for all, a decision must be made about Burke Airport – the loneliest, most wasteful plot of land in Cuyahoga County. Either make it a real airport or do something else with it. 

The West Side Market is another disgrace which needs to be tackled. Cleveland must take a page from the Pike Place Market in Seattle or the Granville Island Public Market in Vancouver, for starters. There’s no charm in shabby. There’s no sell when there are empty stalls.

The city and the county still tolerates too many backroom deals and after-the-fact admissions. Whether it’s the cost taxpayers paid to get Cleveland on The Bachelor or how tax dollars were spent on certain projects like restructuring of the Rocket Mortgage Field House, the future of the West Side Market or new community development, those facts and figures must be a matter of record – period. 

I agree that we have to maintain First Energy Stadium, Progressive Field, and the Rock to draw more dollars, which benefits the surrounding less privileged neighborhoods. Put the cards on the table and make it a public discussion before the money is allocated and spent.

For decades we heard how much money was in Greater Cleveland. Fortunes were made here. Those stories of successful millionaire entrepreneurs are all past tense and pre-war. That wealth, much of it is still here, but it is now held by third, fourth, and fifth generations that did not earn it themselves and have little forethought and interest in reinvesting it in 21st century businesses and industries.

Cleveland is certainly a better place to do business than in the past but it still has a long way. Again, we have to attract 21st century businesses – and entrepreneurs to – not from – Cleveland.

John Nottingham | Co-President, Nottingham Spirk

Cleveland is a great place heading into 2020. Just yesterday, I read the announcement that Sherwin-Williams will build its new headquarters in Public Square, and that’s just one example of big things happening right here in our city. Technology is always changing the way we work and live, but it’s happening at an exponentially faster pace as technology evolves. The implications of that are impossible to ignore. As a business owner, what I notice most is how tech has improved our ability to collaborate and communicate with one another. Coworking spaces like Limelight allow entirely remote workforces to work for some of the biggest companies in the world, but live here in Cleveland. Or the opposite – some of the most talented employees joining companies here in Cleveland, but live elsewhere. Using Zoom and Slack and the other communication technologies keeps everyone on the same page, regardless of where they are.  

I think we need to demonstrate more pride for who we are and what we’re about. We aren’t Silicon Valley, but we are the “Silicon Valley of Manufacturing.” In fact, we are collaborating with manufacturers as they transition from Factory 3.0 to Factory 4.0, the digital transformation of manufacturing. In this arena, Cleveland can be the leading force in the nation. There is a gritty “chip-on-our-shoulders” attitude here in Cleveland that feels unlike anywhere else in the world. We are scrappy, and we make things happen. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.

Brett Sawyer | Executive Chef/Co-owner, The Plum, Good Company, Pie Squared, and Grains and Greens 

I think Cleveland is becoming more accepting of newer ideas in cuisine. Anytime you have a boom like what we have going right now with the amount of restaurants opening, you’re going to have a lot of closings as well. That just goes hand in hand with an expanding food scene.

We’re seeing a lot more from-scratch kitchens, a lot more quality in the restaurants and in the product they’re serving. One of the trends that I’m seeing that aren’t so great – although this happens all over – is that there’s a lot of inexperience. There are a lot of people opening restaurants that don’t really understand what they’re getting into, and I think that is where the problem lies with people closing. It’s very hip and cool to own a restaurant right now, invest in a restaurant, open a food truck, things like that. Because of that, there are a lot of people who don’t have enough experience to know what they’re doing. Maybe it’ll close some doors of what some people are accepting of in the restaurant industry. It also takes away from some of the places that are doing it well.

Even though people are starting to open up to new ideas, I think people can continue to be more open. Cleveland is a city that likes things a certain way, and sometimes that can get in the way of something really great. That goes with any city, really – change is not always welcome with open arms. 

There’s a new chef in town that I want to shout out. His name is Wesley Johnson and he just moved in from Portland and  took over Spice Kitchen & Bar and I think he’s doing something seriously special at Spice. Everybody should go to Spice and eat that food because I would say it’s the best in the city right now.

Eric Ho | Owner/Operator, LBM

I see a rise in privately-owned regional chains and I don’t know if the public is done with them yet. For us in the industry, we’re starting to get tired of seeing people make the same exact duplicate of something in another neighborhood. There’s not that much creativity in it to be honest, and the quality of the product slowly declines. I mean, it’s convenient because a lot of the semi-small operators still do a great job at it, but I don’t mind driving the extra 15 minutes to go to Ohio City for something.

I definitely think the non-alcoholic thing is starting to pick back up. I’m seeing a couple other bars and restaurants around have a specific non-alcoholic on the menu that’s actually built as a non-alcoholic cocktail, not something where if you take booze away from it, it tastes okay. Eric Scott at Thyme Table in Bay Village is someone doing a great job of it right now.

One of the other trends I see happening is more front-of-house focused establishments. Most of the time, chefs open a place and it’s their concept, idea, and execution. In the next couple of years, there will be a lot more bartender or server-driven places that open that is very reliant on front-of-house concepts with supportive food.  

I also think consumers will have to eventually be more objective about things. It definitely happens with craft beer now, but even in the food scene, just because it’s local doesn’t mean it’s good. I’m all for supporting small businesses, but people do need to think for themselves and be more objective. Honestly, give critical feedback to help them improve. Don’t go on a Yelp tirade – that never helps anybody – but offer a true, honest opinion about things. Most of the time, I don’t think egos are going to be hurt if it’s coming from the right place. 

Brian Ruthsatz | Owner/Operator, Rood Food and Pie

I think the Cleveland scene just continues to evolve in and out. You have Zhug open up on the east side. Turning back to Lakewood, you have Constantino’s turning into a brewery, and you have Tinman Burger moving in at Eugene Kitchen. I feel like what was a big food scene is moving more toward Lakewood. Before, we wanted to be there and now they’re moving here.

I would love to see more trends. You almost have to go to Austin, New York, Chicago, or L.A. to see something different and new or you wait for the big chefs to do it, like Doug Katz at Zhug. That’s brilliant and I love it, but the smaller guys want to go tried and true – tacos, simple format, walk up at the bar and get your burger. I could eat tacos 24/7, but I also believe we’re deficient when it comes to new and different ideas. The biggest food trend I’ve seen is a growth in shareable meals. 

I think we have a great food scene, which is why we can have 12 taco places on Madison Ave. Everyone’s got their different take. The Plum broke out two years ago and their food is different all the time and it’s unique and chef-driven. Plum has a great chef, but is more of that grass roots, more organic level which I like. I also love what Mason’s Creamery is doing. That’s what I like – that uniqueness that you typically find in L.A. or Austin. You don’t normally see that here. An ice cream place 365 days a year, but noodles during the winter? That’s great.

Victor Searcy Jr. | Executive Chef/Owner, Sauce the City

The general consumers are becoming more well versed in the culinary arts, which is causing professional chefs and cooks to step up their game. More nostalgic cooking styles, like that home-cooked, savory type of taste, is becoming more part of the mainstream. I see people wanting hot chicken. That’s our main premise at Sauce the City, and that’s something I studied on the West Coast and down in Nashville and some of the southern states. I really didn’t see it too much up here, but now more spice and more flavor is something Clevelanders are getting accustomed to.

I’d like to see more diverse options for consumers, and the consumers need to be ready to try more things and be more open minded and optimistic. I believe that Cleveland is up there with the top food scenes in the nation. There are a lot of professionals that people know in New York and California got their roots in Cleveland, so Cleveland is a melting pot and the starting phase where people can test out their culinary skills before they get to major markets.

Michael Symon is doing well at representing the city and the culinary diversity of it. Chefs like Eric Rogers out at the Black Box Fix is doing a great job of getting different flavor profiles out there. Chef Tiwanna Scott-Williams from PearlFlower Catering is in Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse and she’s done a great job. Her menu items are so versatile that it’s really refreshing. Chef Brett Sawyer from The Plum, he’s now at Ohio City Galley with me and I’m learning from him and seeing the different ways he approaches the Cleveland food scene is very interesting.

Right where we are in the West 25th and Detroit Avenue area, there are so many different bars and restaurants being developed. I think Cleveland’s on the cusp of great things. In the next couple years, there’s going to be a restaurant boom. We just have to be ready for that boom, so strap up and get ready for the rollercoaster, because it’s coming.

Joe Koskcovics | Executive Chef/Operating Partner, Voodoo Tuna

When traveling to other cities, it’s easy to compare them to our own. We should be proud that we offer almost everything that all the other great cities have and in some cases we offer even more – Cleveland is just on a smaller scale. With continued hard work and development, I truly believe that Cleveland can grow to be on a larger scale just the same as other major cities. 

Many other states are trending towards legalizing sports gambling and marijuana. These two would be great for Ohio to legalize and in particularly great for Cleveland via our casinos and dispensaries. We can capture millions of additional tax revenue not only for the state but our own city as well.

Penny Barend-Tagliarina | Co-owner/Operator, Saucisson

It’s interesting how many other small businesses are really growing and booming here. A lot of the people that I met when I first moved here have really grown. There’s a great deal of support from Clevelanders for other Clevelanders and small business. I think that is going to continue because people here see great value in that. 

Within the food industry in this city, there’s a lot of community engagement. It goes outside of being the business owner; you’re also trying to better your community and city. Rust Belt Riders are teaching people about composting at home. Everyone has their own ethics and values and that’s part of their business, but then they extend it to their community to make the city better both inside and outside their business.

Jeremy Umansky’s passion and excitement is contagious. He can talk to any audience about the bacteria work he’s doing. We saw each other at a career day at James Garfield Elementary School and I’m talking about being a butcher and he’s talking about bacteria poop with elementary school kids. He’s explaining it in that way to them so they understand and it’s hilarious. He’s extremely cutting edge. What he’s doing here is something I feel would be more widely understood and accepted on either coast, but it’s cool he’s doing it here. He’s also just really fun to talk to and relatable. He’s not alienating anyone from what he’s doing. It’s not elitist. Everyone can learn to understand this, eat this, and enjoy this. I love that. 

This is a problem nationwide, but we don’t seem to take enough stock in education. We should care more about what young students are doing and learning and being exposed to and helping them navigate what the world is now, what it’s becoming, and what it could become. I have five nieces in California and when your 6-year-old niece talks to you about active shooter drills, you can’t take it lightly. I grew up doing earthquake drills, and I talk to the oldest niece and she’s been doing active shooter drills her entire school career and she’s a sixth grader. 

If we focused more on nurturing, teaching, and kindness, the universe would be a better place. I’ve visited some high schools and elementary schools in the city and I walk around and think that students come there every day and buildings are falling apart. How is that helping them learn to read well or think for themselves or understand history, science, math, or anything? It’s not just the building, it’s also what they have to go through to get to that building. We should put more stock in younger people.

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