- Walter Novak
- Dorothy Burton filed a lawsuit against the city in early December.
Pitched as the lodestone of the area's economic revival, the $8 million Glenville Towne Centre was being built with a $6.5 million grant though Cleveland's Empowerment Zone, a 10-year, $177 million federal campaign to revive inner-city neighborhoods.
The project offered something for everybody: Neighborhood residents would finally get stores and services they usually had to schlep to the suburbs for; local businesses would see more traffic and better commercial space. A "creative use of Empowerment Zone capital resources to finance catalytic neighborhood development projects," Mayor Michael White called it.
English translation: Everybody would win.
Burton certainly thought so. A longtime Glenville resident who'd owned and operated a neighborhood beauty shop for 13 years, she planned to move to the center when construction was completed. "It was more parking, everything was more convenient. Everybody was excited. It was something new."
So that fall, when the Coral Company -- the private developer of the project -- asked her to appear at the groundbreaking ceremony, she was happy to oblige. She became a poster child for Glenville's renaissance. Her picture was in the paper. Channel 5 put her on the evening news.
But over the last two years, things have worked out far better for the shopping center than they have for Burton. Glenville Towne Centre is up and running, a beacon of commercial polish amid the neighborhood's chronic blight. There's a Hollywood Video, a Popeye's Chicken, a Firstar Bank, and a Payless ShoeSource.
"It looks great for the neighborhood," says George Masio, owner of George's Meats inside the adjacent East Side Market. "Getting rid of the old buildings and putting up the new. That's a good sign."
Burton's Aquarius Unlimited Beauty Salon, however, is nowhere to be found. She now operates out of a drab space on East 105th. It's only a few blocks from Towne Centre, but it looks like it could be in another continent. Even Burton admits it's a dump.
Today, she embodies the flip side of urban revitalization, the deflated faith of those who were once promised -- or believed -- that they were entitled a spot on the redevelopment gravy train. Many of her employees have left. She's been taken to court. Her business is on life support.
"My thing is, had they been honest up front, I could have went anywhere. I could have done anything," she says. "It wasn't about the money. But I trusted these people. It'll be a long time before I trust again."
The Empowerment Zone newsletter, put out by the city, is full of hopeful stories of business triumph. There's the tale of Sunrise Home Healthcare, which has expanded twice in the last five years, thanks to federal money. There's Pernel Jones & Sons funeral home, which was able to build a new facility in Fairfax with similar loans and grants. And there's Bradley Construction, which relocated its headquarters to Glenville with the program's help.
Burton once believed she'd someday provide a similar tale. Fifteen years ago, she worked cutting steel at a gasket shop on the West Side. Bored with the job's repetition, she enrolled in cosmetology school. She had never run a lemonade stand, yet she decided while in school that she wanted to start her own business.
She got some money from her father. She bought equipment from a salon that was shutting down. She found space in Glenville and a contractor who went out of his way to help her. "Everything was a blessing, how that all took place. It just seemed like, if you want something bad enough, it comes to you."
By the mid-'90s, Burton had moved her salon into an old Masonic temple on St. Clair Avenue near East 105th Street, when she heard rumblings of big changes coming to the neighborhood. In 1994, Cleveland was named one of eight cities that would receive millions of federal dollars to reverse the long decline of its poorest neighborhoods. Over 10 years, the feds would funnel $177 million into the city's "Empowerment Zone," which included Hough, Fairfax, Midtown, and Glenville. Through tax incentives, grants, and loans, the city would use the money to expand business opportunities, create jobs, and help people find work.
One priority was a shopping center at the corner of East 105th and St. Clair, next to the East Side Market. There was just one problem: A church and the Masonic temple, which sat at one end of the land coveted for the project, needed to be razed.
In 1997, Peter Rubin, head of the Coral Company, a Beachwood developer that was partnering with the Glenville Development Corporation to build the center, approached Burton. The project needed tenants, and Burton would need a new home for her salon when the temple was torn down.
"He said, 'If you made it all these years, you know what it takes to run a business,'" Burton recalls. "I made some mistakes in the past, and I knew that this would be a big step, but I was willing to take it."
In October 1998, she signed a lease.
Even before she agreed to the deal, however, Burton's business plans were beginning to unravel. The previous spring, Burton got into a dispute with her landlord, The Most Worshipful St. John's Grand Lodge Ancient Free and Accepted Masons Inc., over heating the building. The Masons said Burton was responsible for paying all utilities. She believed the Masons were responsible for the heat, since she occupied only a small portion of the temple. When the Masons stopped heating the building, they got portable heaters for Burton's salon.
"There were cords running everywhere," says Loretta Gray, who's worked with Burton for eight years. "It was a complete mess."
Burton's electric bill skyrocketed, and she had to choose: pay her rent or her electric bill. She chose electricity. That May, the Masons evicted her.
Still, Burton remained hopeful. She believed she was eligible for relocation money from the city. The only reason she had stayed in the building was because Coral and Glenville Development told her she must if she wanted help, she says. "I had to make a choice as a business owner. I had to stay here to get relocation money . . . But you can't run without heat. This is the wintertime."
The city disagreed. By late summer 2000, Glenville Towne Centre was preparing to open, and Rubin encouraged Burton to apply for grants, loans, and relocation money so she could move in as soon as possible. She submitted her paperwork to the city in October of last year.
It did not take long for the Department of Community Development to determine that she wasn't eligible for relocation money or Empowerment Zone funds, according to city records. Her credit rating was poor. Her application was incomplete. Her business plan was lacking. Most damaging was the eviction. The Masons booted Burton in July -- five months before a notice to raze the building was issued.
Burton's problems weren't uncommon. A chief criticism of the Empowerment Zone is its rigidity in doling out grants and loans, which hampers its ability to help the smallest businesses, the economic engines for most inner-city neighborhoods.
"They much prefer to deal with a large business than with a bunch of small ones," says Cleveland State professor Dennis Keating, who has studied Cleveland's Empowerment Zone. "Right now, because of all the regulations, you'd do better walking into a commercial bank and taking out a loan than going through them."
Yet the city missed one step in its denial of Burton's application: It forgot to tell her. For seven months, she was told nothing while her paperwork languished in City Hall. In the meantime, the Coral Company gave up hope that she would ever have the money to move into the center. Last spring, it took her to court for nonpayment of rent. Though Burton had never actually occupied space in the center, thanks to her lease she was still on the hook for rent. (In October, a housing court judge dismissed the Coral Company's suit, after a company representative failed to show up for a hearing.)
Finally, after Burton wrote a letter to Mayor White last spring, the city told her that her application had been denied.
She has been on the warpath ever since, arguing that she is rightfully entitled to relocation money, despite her eviction. This summer, she contacted the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. HUD contacted the city. The city called Burton for another meeting. The city told her there was nothing it could do. On December 11, she filed a federal lawsuit.
Not surprisingly, Burton isn't particularly popular with community development folks. Tracy Kirksey, director of the Glenville Development Corporation, did not return numerous calls. Nor did Rubin. And the White administration did not respond to Scene's requests to interview Valerie McCall, director of the Empowerment Zone.
Meanwhile, Burton's business is hanging by a thread. Many of her customers don't like her current location on East 105th. They worry about parking their cars, about their safety at night. There is little foot traffic to bring in new customers.
"It's really slow," says Gray. "It's frustrating. I'd say business is about a third of what it once was."
Yet Burton presses on, convinced that her betrayal was more than just the sum of bureaucratic neglect and public-relations convenience. "I know they're just looking for me to go away. That's what happens in the inner city. Most people just go away, because they figure they can't fight. There were many times when I wanted to walk away. Sometimes it takes one person to stand up for everybody else."