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A Global Mess: Can Global Cleveland and New Leader Joe Cimperman Turn the Corner and Actually Attract and Engage Immigrants?



Ivan Fuentes moved to Cleveland for a girl and ended up falling in love with the city. The El Salvador native loves just about everything about living here: the free English as a Second Language (ESL) classes accessible by public transportation, his job as an ice cream maker at Mitchell's, the snow that falls on his street in Ohio City like something out of a fairy tale.

Even though moving here was incredibly difficult, Fuentes has found Cleveland to be a welcoming city that provides plenty of opportunity.

"I think it was easier to move to Cleveland because of the family and friends support system I was received in, but I have found people willing to help me especially when it comes to language," says Fuentes, adding, "Cleveland is a beautiful city, yet there is so much untapped possibility."

Brazilian-born Gustavo Garcia de Lima had similar experiences. He came to Cleveland to pursue a master's degree in chemistry at Case Western Reserve University but ended up getting a job at Market Garden Brewery. He'd been an avid homebrewer for some time, and when brewmaster Andy Tveekram made a presentation to his class one day, they formed a connection.

"When you Google about it, a lot of news comes up about Cleveland," says Garcia de Lima. "There is a whole other Cleveland that people don't know, and it's not what is being marketed in Cleveland or in the news. I've discovered many positive things here."

Now Tveekram and his partners want to hire Garcia de Lima after he graduates, a move they believe would be worth it despite the extra time and expense involved in hiring a foreign national.

"With the expansion of breweries in Ohio and nationwide, there's a huge demand for people like Gus with microbiology degrees who can analyze beer and ensure quality and consistency," says Michael Foran, one of the founders of Market Garden "We're trying to play our part in brain gain and brain retention."

It's become almost axiomatic that immigrants help cities create jobs. Fully a third of venture-backed companies that went public between 2006 and 2012 had at least one immigrant founder at the helm, according to a study by the Partnership for a New American Economy. Additionally, immigrants are more than twice as likely to found businesses as their native-born counterparts and are responsible for 25 percent of all new business creation and job-related growth.

It stands to reason, then, that immigrant attraction could also help Cleveland grow. In fact, according to a 2014 study by the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University, Cleveland has not only seen a rise in our share of college-educated 25- to 34-year olds (by 23 percent from 2006 to 2012, with an 11 percent increase from 2011 to 2012 alone) but half of the immigrants who moved here were college educated.

Yet despite notable forward progress, Cleveland has fallen behind other cities in attracting and retaining immigrants, according to Richey Piiparinen of the Center for Population Dynamics. In Piiparinen's recently released report, The Fifth Migration, he notes: "Cleveland's millennials have less ethnic and racial diversity than millennials nationally. Nearly 66 percent of Clevelanders aged 15 to 34 are white, followed by 23 percent black, 7 percent Hispanic and 3 percent Asian. Foreign-born millennials make up just 6 percent of local millennials."

Rethinking our strategy

Cleveland has a nonprofit organization, Global Cleveland, whose mission is to help attract and retain immigrants in Northeast Ohio. Its website says that it is a "nonprofit organization focused on regional economic development by actively attracting, welcoming and connecting newcomers to Greater Cleveland's many economic and social opportunities."

Global Cleveland was founded in 2011 and launched with fanfare, despite the at-times contentious rhetoric that surrounded an organization that promised to attract newcomers, both native born and immigrants, to Cleveland for jobs.

Three hundred civic and business leaders gathered in May of that year at Cleveland State for a kickoff brainstorming session of sorts. The goal was to attract 100,000 new residents to the city in 10 years. "I think it's going to be easier than people think," a Huntington Bank regional president told the Plain Dealer at the time. (Huntington Bank, along with Forest City Enterprises, gave Global Cleveland start-up grants.) The fete continued with a launch party on a Tuesday night in the rotunda of City Hall. Mayor Jackson was there (he spoke after a performance by a steel-drum band), as was then-county executive Ed FitzGerald.

The love fest, however, was short lived.

Continuity has been a problem for the organization in its short lifespan, as has long-term funding strategies.

A 2014 Plain Dealer story noted, "Despite backing from some members of the business community, the agency has not generated much public or political support for its quest to revive a depopulated city by welcoming newcomers, including immigrants. Several of Global Cleveland's founders, including Cleveland immigration lawyer Richard Herman, have left the board in frustration over the lack of a more assertive welcome to diverse cultures." Jackson and FitzGerald, for example, didn't voice their support for some of Global Cleveland's programs, despite Mayor Jackson's role as honorary board member and ribbon-cutter.

The same story noted that a Cleveland State University study saw an uptick in "knowledge workers" in the years leading up to 2014, with young, college-educated adults arriving in Greater Cleveland. "[Global Cleveland board member] Albert Ratner said Global Cleveland cannot take credit for the surge but will seek to build upon it," the Plain Dealer noted. "We didn't even know it was happening," Ratner told the paper. "We're going to keep it going. We're going to systemize it."

Despite spending nearly $5 million in public and private money over the past five years, including $750,000 from JobsOhio, the state's privatized economic development agency, the results of Global Cleveland's work are unclear. The organization's board members declined to discuss it with Scene, stating that they preferred to focus on the organization's future. The nonprofit has been without a permanent leader since Joy Roller resigned in April of last year.

That will change soon.

In a major shakeup, Ward 3 councilman Joe Cimperman announced in January that he was leaving city council after 18 years to become the new president of Global Cleveland. However, he won't start until after council budget hearings in March. (He remains under investigation by the Ohio Ethics Commission for his involvement in city contracts awarded to the nonprofit design firm that employs his wife.)

David Fleshler, vice provost for international affairs at Case and Global Cleveland's board president, acknowledges that Cleveland is behind where it needs to be in attracting immigrants, but says we're making progress. "Over the last five years, the percentage of immigrants with advanced degrees moving here is very high," he says. "We're heading in the right direction. Do we need to move more quickly? Yes. Global Cleveland can help, that's why it is needed."

Cleveland will be successful in attracting immigrants, Fleshler says, if we market the knowledge jobs that are available here as well as urban amenities like ethnic markets that are attractive to foreign-born individuals. "Any economically successful city is made up of people from all over the world," he says. "A huge percentage of our grandparents and great-grandparents were immigrants. Now you see the same thing happening again — immigrants are at the tip of economic advancement."

In response to Scene's request, Fleshler provided a document containing Global Cleveland's 2015 highlights, which include engaging 119 entrepreneurs in capacity-building workshops; interacting with 101 employers in the Global Employer programming, a new program focused on educating employers about hiring international talent; attracting 347 international students to educational workshops; connecting 112 international newcomers with job coaches and mentors; and spurring a 62.4 percent increase in website visitors.

Yet Piiparinen, who has been consulting with Global Cleveland on its new strategy, says that the organization needs to refine its approach if it wants to catch up with more immigrant-friendly cities. The group's welcome hub in downtown Cleveland, newcomer marketing campaigns and international "welcoming" initiatives haven't yielded the sought-after results.

The "welcome hub" at Public Square, opened with much fanfare in 2012, hasn't lived up to its promises. Plain Dealer coverage from the opening noted that a regional president of Huntington Bank described it as "the Apple store of Cleveland. You go in and your problems get resolved rather quickly." The article also described a whiteboard where visitors left messages. Some included, "Summer on the Cuyahoga welcomes you," "The world will walk through these doors," and "I'm welcome... Yeah!"

What's needed, Piiparinen says, is a more targeted strategy of engaging immigrants who are already here and building stronger connections between Cleveland's growing knowledge economy and other cities.

Immigrants will come here, he says, if we create enough jobs to attract them.

"If you look historically at why populations grow and decline, is it because of civic initiatives or macroeconomics?" he says pointedly. "Globalization is the economic reality, internationalization is how we deal with it. It's not about attraction; it's about engagement. And one great way to attract people is to engage the folks who are already here."

In an interview, both Fleshler and Cimperman hinted that the organization will see changes later this year, but wouldn't provide many specifics. Cimperman says that he wanted the job with Global Cleveland because he sees it as a major opportunity to move the city forward and stem our ongoing population loss.

"I think what is great about Global Cleveland is first, telling people we're open for business; second, not just saying you're welcome but trying to connect you; and third, making the entire community more prosperous," Cimperman says. "Cleveland, Northeast Ohio, is a magical place. We have a lot to learn and teach ... My job will be to unite Cleveland around this work."

A global mess

Cleveland may not be attracting immigrants at the same pace as some other cities, yet the metro area "ranks fifth in the nation in the percentage of foreign born residents with an advanced or professional degree, just ahead of Boston ..." according to Cleveland: A High-Skilled Immigrant Destination, a 2015 report by The Center for Population Dynamics.

Piiparinen says that Cleveland is well positioned to draw highly educated immigrants because of the growth of "eds and meds" jobs at places like Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Clinic. Additionally, the increase in the number of international students here bodes well — Case alone has over 2,000 international students from 150 countries. Finally, approximately 800 to 1,500 refugees are resettled in Cleveland each year, and these individuals contribute to job and income growth.

Yet what's missing is a well-orchestrated effort to engage immigrants once they get here, says Mythili Bhat, an Indian-born dentist who moved to Cleveland from Pittsburgh with her physician husband. The couple enjoys living here — so much so that they recently bought a condo at University Lofts at 2020 Euclid Ave. Yet their perceptions of the city were mixed before they came here, and since moving, they haven't always felt part of the community.

"I felt Cleveland was much scarier and more isolated than Pittsburgh," Bhat recalls of her impressions of the city before moving here. "I was scared that I wouldn't be able to connect, and felt that people were very parochial. That's gradually changed ... but even though we attend a lot of events here, we still don't feel connected to the city."

By way of contrast, Bhat says that Global Pittsburgh helped her make connections with the international and local community. "I think the difference is that Global Pittsburgh was more aggressive in bringing out people and immigrants to events," she says. "Global Pittsburgh gave me an opportunity to explore different activities and connect to people, and it tapped my interests and what I bring to the table."

Bhat says she didn't even know about Global Cleveland until after she'd lived here a while, and she still hasn't interacted much with the organization.

Privately, two individuals close to the organization said it has been poorly run. Roller focused on building a website that would attract newcomers and connect them to jobs, and she developed a marketing "roadshow" that she took to Chicago and D.C. to sell people on moving here; but these efforts flopped.

One person described Global Cleveland's gimmicky marketing programs as "utter nonsense" and said its "misspending was atrocious." Another reported that the road shows were poorly attended and the group's welcoming strategy, which was dubbed a "portal," was "basically just a website."

Perhaps not even a good one at that. Erin McIntyre, who is Fuentes' wife, said she never heard back after emailing Global Cleveland asking for job search assistance for her immigrant husband. "I think Global Cleveland has unearthed a lot of important components for newcomers, but where there's room for growth is creating connectivity and empowering a support network," she says, adding, "Their website is basically a collection of other websites."

A path forward

Despite a host of challenges at Global Cleveland, all parties interviewed for this story felt that it has an important role to play in advancing the city's economy. Many say Cimperman, who is known for his energy and boundless enthusiasm for all things Cleveland, could be just the person to do it.

The councilman not only has experience navigating the trenches of politics and the byzantine corridors of city hall but also is known as a champion of immigrants. He grew up on East 74th off of St. Clair Avenue in a Slovenian immigrant family. His uncle owned a butcher shop and hired Ethiopian immigrants to work there because he saw something of himself in their experiences. Cimperman also helped start the six-acre Ohio City Farm, which employs former refugees.

Cimperman cited entrepreneurs like Raddhika Reddy — who came here on a student visa 25 years ago and recently renovated the old Leff Electric building on East 40th Street into an international business center — as examples of how immigrant attraction and retention could help transform the city. He says his goal is to raise Cleveland's profile as an international business destination.

"That basic hard work ethic and promise, that's the reason why people invest here," he says, citing Cleveland's history as a manufacturing center built by immigrants as a legacy we can build on. "This is a place that gives people first chances, second chances and third chances."

Both Fleshler and Cimperman admitted that Global Cleveland's strategy would get more focused. The organization must not only attract immigrants to move here, but also focus on forging connections with other countries and exporting Cleveland's talents globally.

"What you see is that in a successful community, there are as many people leaving as coming," says Fleshler, citing Case's increasingly global student body as an example. "The question is, when they start a business in their country and then it's time to open an office in the U.S., are they going to open it in San Francisco, L.A. or New York or are they going to come to Cleveland?"

"We connect them while they're here so they feel like this is their home in the U.S.," he says.

Instead of all newcomers, Global Cleveland will refocus its efforts on internationalization. "Attracting newcomers will be there, but we want to be able to focus enough to make a real dent," he says. "Immigrants tend to be risk takers. They go into businesses at a greater rate."

Cimperman also says the city is rallying around refugees and helping them find jobs, and he wants to bolster that activity. Although the numbers are small, they're growing quickly, with as much as a 25-percent bump in the past year alone.

As it stands, Garcia de Lima will return to his native Brazil while he applies for a work visa in the U.S., says Foran of Market Garden Brewery. Global Cleveland could play an important role by helping educate employers about hiring foreign workers.

Piiparinen, who's been coaching Global Cleveland on its 2.0 strategy, says the group needs to focus as much on "circulation" as attraction. Cleveland needs more "demographic churn," or people coming and going, in order to foster a region that is better connected to the global economy and has the kinds of jobs, amenities and civic culture that will attract immigrants.

"I'd like to see a Leadership Cleveland class of highly educated immigrants," he says. "Right now we mostly tap people who are already engaged."

Tracy Moavero, a nonprofit consultant who volunteered as a job coach with Global Cleveland for several years, says that immigrants can help Cleveland become a more global city.

"As much as I love Cleveland, it can be rather cut off from the rest of the country and the rest of the world," she says. "Because we haven't had an influx of newcomers in a long time, that affects our culture. Cleveland is not as welcoming as it could be, even to those of us who grew up here and want to come back. I hope Global Cleveland's success will ultimately be about changing the culture of the city of Cleveland so we're open to more positive change and growth."


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