Welcome to the Smaller, Smarter Cleveland

By J.F. McKenna

Cleveland needs a new tagline, a snappy verbal signature for residents and prospective residents alike.

When I was a kid, Cleveland labeled itself “The Best Location in the Nation.” That slogan was positively poetic. Of course, robust steel mills, three-shift car plants and stabile neighborhoods underscored the fact that the tagline was more than just words with an echo.

I’m no longer 16, and my hometown is no longer a Midwestern municipal giant, economically or demographically. In fact, the latest census numbers show that Cleveland’s population has dropped below 400,000. The city that once boasted the addresses of Bob Hope and John D. Rockefeller has sagged in size. Over time, it has watched many of its residents join the supporting cast of Bob and Rocky’s “The Road to Outtahere.”

But fear not. I have written taglines professionally, and I have a great one for the city’s consideration and approval.

Cleveland—Smaller, But Smarter.

Now all we have to do is back up those words.

The same day I learned of Cleveland’s woefully successful population diet, I read an interview with Ed Glaeser, the Harvard urban economics expert and Manhattan Institute senior fellow. Like me, Glaeser is an incurable optimist when it comes to cities and their value.

“Overall,” Glaeser told National Review Online, “the main thing that explains which cities will be able to reinvent themselves is the skill level. The proportion of the population with college degrees as of 1960 or 1970 does a decently good job of predicting urban reinvention.

“If there’s a second characteristic that matters,” he continued, “it’s average firm size: Places with small firms tend to do better than places with big firms. I interpret this as having to do with the benefits of a local culture of entrepreneurship and innovation. People want different things out of their cities. One of the glories of America is that we have a panoply of choices of locations. And plenty of people are still going to prefer the conveniences of living in a mid-sized city to living in New York or Chicago, which have hyper-charged productivity, but also have the downside of mass urban agglomeration.”

See. My tagline can work. Cleveland is already halfway there. It’s definitely smaller. Now it just has to get smarter.

For openers, Cleveland needs to work with Gov. John Kasich to put out a new welcome mat to businesses. Ask any smart businessman to articulate his primary concern about establishing a corporate footprint or enlarging an existing one. The word “taxes” always finds its way to the front of the first sentence.

For-profit operations like to think in terms of ROI, not TAX. Gov. Kasich, Mayor Jackson & Co. might even borrow an idea or two from our neighbors to the north.

“Finally, Michigan’s business tax structure is getting the radical makeover it deserved years ago,” Detroit News columnist Daniel Howes wrote recently. “In one sweeping proposal, Michigan’s CEO is seeking a tax overhaul that would cut business taxes roughly 50 percent, exempt some 95,000 small businesses from even filing a state tax return and transform a Great Lakes laggard into a leader. That may not guarantee robust job creation in the years ahead, but it won’t hurt.”

Why should Detroit enjoy urban resurrection alone? Cleveland has just as much to offer. And Cleveland’s football team is better—really.

Next, Cleveland has to ensure it has the infrastructure to convince businesses that “a stake on the Lake” is smart investing. Municipal basics—from public safety to well-kept highways—attract and keep commerce within corporation limits and, in turn, generate jobs and wealth. Accordingly, the city fathers need to begin a serious audit of the municipal infrastructure, with a commitment to fix what is broken or out of date.

Casinos may be considered a good deal, but safe streets and reliable resources are always the smart bet.

Speaking of the smart bet, I once again find myself at Cleveland’s school door. No city, of any size, can be successful without a feeder system for its business community.

As I wrote in an earlier column (“Cleveland’s Future Will Take More Than Talk”), “a person must learn to walk before he or she can run. Particularly in Cleveland, workforce training starts with a strong basic education. When Eugene Saunders bailed out as the Cleveland schools’ CEO in January, the graduation rate was 54 percent. Such a dismal statistic does not a future make. Workforce development will have to begin long before the future workers get anywhere near the doors of Cleveland State University or Cuyahoga Community College.”

Deal with taxes, ensure top amenities and deliver a ready workforce. If Cleveland does that, my tagline meets all truth-in-advertising standards.

And reflects a working 21st century Cleveland.

J.F. McKenna is a veteran business journalist and communications consultant. Reach him at jf_mckenna@yahoo.com .

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