Greater Cleveland is economically falling behind the rest of the country; so say a proliferation of news stories and editorials. While the reasons cited are many -- we're undereducated, we're uninventive; hell, we're three million morons -- one recurring motif stands out: Our politics aren't conducive to a new age of commerce. Witness the cage match/sitcom known as Cleveland City Hall.
The logic goes like this: Say you're a CEO named Biff, and you're looking to site an exciting new biotechnology venture. Do you: A) build it in Cleveland, where the mayor and council will make blood sport of your plan, allowing you to begin construction in 2009? or B) build in a southern city, where you can start tomorrow -- with a handsome welfare package -- by simply buying the mayor a pint of whiskey and a $20 hooker?
The wise captain of industry chooses B. And that worries people like state Representative James Trakas (R-Independence). In his eyes, Cleveland isn't just uncompetitive; it's driving away business. "Talk to any developer in town," he says, "and they'll tell you they'll build in Columbus in a heartbeat instead of Cleveland."
Though our King George tax system and pesky unions also scare businesspeople, Trakas argues that City Hall may be the largest impediment. He points to the Western Reserve Historical Society, which waited years to get its auto museum site rezoned. Then there's the countless calls from politicians to new businesses to suggest a certain union, a certain bank to do business with. All of which leads to questions like the one Trakas recently got from a "top-five developer," who asked, "When was the last time you saw a crane in downtown Cleveland at a non-public-sector project?" Trakas didn't have an answer.
Jimmy Dimora understands these concerns. He's the Democratic county chairman; every elected office in Cleveland is held by his party. But being party chairman is like being a substitute teacher. "I try to make suggestions to them on occasion," says Dimora, "but they don't have to take it." It's a polite way of saying, "Jesus, I can't get them to shut up."
Yet Dimora believes that a brighter day is near. He says Democratic mayoral contenders understand that, if Cleveland is to prosper, Mayor Mike White's scorched-earth policies must be no more. "I think all of them are aware of it."