“Personal View: It’s time to get to work to fix our economy”
By Jon Pinney
This column originally appeared in Crain’s Cleveland Business on July 1, 2018.
Over the last year, I’ve been highlighting the need for change in Northeast Ohio’s economic development ecosystem. I’ve pored over statistics and talked to countless individuals across all sectors about our region’s lagging economic performance, trying to better understand why we are underperforming and what we should do about it.
On June 8, I took the stage at the City Club of Cleveland to start a conversation about creating real change in our economic development ecosystem. It’s a tough conversation to have, even uncomfortable at times. But for too long, leaders in our region have been unwilling or unable to have it. I called for a conversation. That’s exactly what I got.
Since my City Club appearance, I’ve received thousands of emails, calls and texts from across the region, and I’m overwhelmed with gratitude over the response. Thank you to everyone for listening, writing and truly caring about our community. There are so many talented people who want to be part of seeing Northeast Ohio thrive, and if my comments have inspired others to join the conversation, then I feel I’ve succeeded. I’m also encouraged that my call to action has been the subject of board meetings, roundtables, editorials and media coverage.
On a personal level, this has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I’m not perfect, and my speech was not perfect. I don’t have all the answers. I should have addressed important issues like poverty, education, diversity and equity. Standing on the stage alone, the last thing I wanted to do was alienate anyone. I’ll stand on the stage with anyone who wants to step forward as a leader, regardless of their race, gender or background. Despite some scrutiny and criticism, I believe I accomplished my goal of starting an important conversation.
Now people want to know what we’re doing next to make progress. I’m hopeful that an alignment process will begin among all of the organizations in our economic development ecosystem. Rebuilding trust and developing a unified vision throughout the ecosystem will be critical to success. From there, I want to see a regional strategic economic development plan emerge that we can all get behind. I’m encouraged by the fact that board meetings have been called, discussions are ensuing and leaders have stepped forward to help. The conversation should now look toward the future, and I will get behind any well-intentioned process announced.
What’s most encouraging is that new programs and bold projects are already being actively discussed. People are not waiting. They want to get to work.
One example is Project 1969. A group of business and civic leaders, including myself, have formed a planning team to build the nation’s largest and most advanced technology and entrepreneurial ecosystem hub. (You can figure out for yourself why we chose that name). It will be modeled after Chicago’s 1871, and will be housed within a newly certified Opportunity Zone, which will provide significant tax benefits to investors. We picked an ideal site, met with the property owner who sees the vision and are working on a model. Anyone who wants to help is welcome to join us. This will require unprecedented collaboration.
After my speech, countless people contacted me offering ideas to grow our population, and I’d like to share just a few. One person who reached out suggested tax incentives to attract people to return home — think of it as an “ex-pat tax credit.” Citing data that confirms a high percentage of our top high school graduates leave the state to attend college, another person suggested incentivizing our kids to attend college here instead of leaving the region. People also supported building a comparable program to Campus Philly, a program I referenced during my speech that Philadelphia created to retain students passing through its universities.
In response to the housing starts data that I presented, one person argued that our suburbs have “zoned out growth” and every municipality should adopt pro-growth zoning standards drafted by a super-regional pro-growth advocacy council (perhaps call it “GrowNEO”). The idea is a good one — as an attorney, I know how hard it is to get projects approved by zoning bodies. Many of our municipalities prohibit developers from building apartments and impose so many restrictions that projects are not economically feasible. Last year, a suburb voted down a $35 million project because the “building was too big.” The national developer left town and vowed to never come back.
Other people urged the region’s powerhouse hospital systems, universities and corporations to collaborate and lead the alignment process. Countless people want to get behind bold projects, like the Cleveland-to-Chicago Hyperloop project being explored by NOACA. Several people shared my view that we need to invest heavily into building an innovation economy, applauded JumpStart and thanked KeyBank for investing $24 million there, while calling for other companies to do the same. Dozens of people called for support of the early stage startups fueled by organizations like FlashStarts and the North Coast Angel Fund.
Everyone agreed that we need to map the ecosystem, gather better data, set metrics and build a regional economic development portal. I am hopeful that the amazing people of the Leadership Cleveland class of 2018 will take on this important project. Stay tuned for more on this and the “Grand Challenge” I referenced in my speech.
I am grateful that so many people attended or watched my speech at the City Club. It shows how many individuals care deeply about this region, regardless of whether they agree with what I said. I also want to thank the nearly 2,000 people who took the time to email me their ideas and thoughts. I promise I will respond to every email — just give me a little more time.
Please help keep the conversation going. Thank you.