Dumb, Trans Fat-free and Happy

By J.F. McKenna

Cleveland has cracked down on trans fats. If that doesn’t bring in the business, nothing will.

I’m kidding. Actually, I’m being downright sardonic—and justifiably so.

While in Pittsburgh—hold the raspberries, please—I learned online that the city had passed the first round of its “Healthy Cleveland” ordinances. The first law bans industrially produced trans fats, while the second further restricts outdoor smoking. Mentioning the news to my hosts, they politely responded with, “Oh, isn’t that a good thing.” Their comment carried the same tone people employ with “Isn’t that great. Johnny is completing his GED in jail.”

Meanwhile, the self-congratulation continues unabated off Lake Erie. “We’ve taken Steps 1 and 2 on Healthy Cleveland,” Council President Martin Sweeney was quoted as saying. “Once you take two steps, you’ve taken a stride.” I’ll wager Councilman Sweeney even thought: “That’ll show those wise guys at Forbes.” Earlier this year, the redoubtable tastemaker for business placed Cleveland in its top-10 list of America’s most miserable cities. Though Cleveland did not recapture the No. 1 spot it held in 2009, the magazine reported, the one-time home of John D. Rockefeller “was the only city to rank in the bottom half of each of the 10 categories” used to fashion the dubious distinction.

And that underscores the problem at hand. Cleveland has an image-management problem, particularly among businesses in the country. In Mayor Tom Johnson’s day (1901-1909), Cleveland was labeled a boom town and celebrated as “the best-governed city in the nation.” Today, it’s the buckle of the Rust Belt, administered by people seen as incapable of establishing serious priorities.

Don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. Promoting healthier lifestyles is part of a better community. But it’s best left to the individual households. Legislating against trans fats et al telegraphs the wrong message to corporate site-selection teams, especially when they read such descriptions as this one from a 2009 Forbes issue:

The city of Cleveland has had a colorful history. The Cuyahoga River, which runs through the city, famously caught fire in 1969 thanks to rampant pollution, and it wasn’t the first time. In 1978 it became the first U.S. city to default on its debts since the Great Depression. Cleveland sports fans have had to endure more anguish than those in any other city. The city has been dubbed with a less than endearing nickname: the Mistake by the Lake.

Like it or not, that’s a tough public image to rehabilitate. It doesn’t need to add “fatuous but fat-free” to the list of branding adjectives.

Maybe Cleveland’s business community and public officials might reprioritize the “Healthy Cleveland” campaign, starting with building up the economic health of the city. They could review Forbes criteria for suggestions, even. The magazine “looked at the 200 largest metropolitan statistical areas, [ranking] each area on 10 factors, including unemployment over three years, tax rates (both sales and income), commute times, violent crime and how its pro sports teams have fared over the past three years. We added two housing metrics this year: the change in median home prices over three years, and foreclosure rates in 2010, as compiled by RealtyTrac. We also considered corruption based on convictions of public officials in each region….”

Did I leave out restricting trans fats? Again, I’m kidding.

In one sentence, Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson— a sage mistaken for a fool— best captures Cleveland’s current image-management problem. “Nothing,” Wilson opines in his calendar, “so needs reforming as other people’s habits.”

Nothing, that is, except doing the most-important things first to attract business.

Now I’m not kidding.

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



  1. Really enjoyed this blog post, can you make it so I get an update sent in an email every time you write a new post?

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