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

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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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