As GOP convenes, a tale of two Clevelands

Clevelanders, who reside in a city that LeBron James calls "the Land," have a lot to be proud of: a vibrant downtown; two top professional sports teams, the NBA champion Cavaliers and the Indians baseball franchise; and the venerable Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

But, most important, Cleveland is a city that survived recession, the crumbling of the Rust Belt and a foreclosure crisis. Now it's clawing its way toward a comeback. Will next week's Republican National Convention help or hurt?

"Our city is prepared for a tremendous convention and media stage," said Joe Roman, president of the Greater Cleveland Partnership (GCP), comprising 8,500 Northeastern Ohio companies that are dedicated to making the Republican gathering a success. "We are ready for whatever might happen."

But others aren't as optimistic. "We hope for a peaceful week," said former city councilman Jim Rokakis, who's raising money to knock down a huge number of Cleveland's abandoned houses and factories. "We hope the city will survive. We hope it won't be violent."

So what might happen? Well, just about anything, which is why Joseph Marinucci, who heads the Downtown Cleveland Alliance, has been getting into the office at 6:30 a.m. and staying late.

Violence is threatening from many directions. Bikers for Trump plan to patrol the streets on motorcycles but could encounter angry Democrats carrying rifles because Ohio is an "open carry" state. Cleveland's strip clubs await tipsy Republicans while they also prepare for violent protesters. Cleveland's police union leader said the city's law enforcement is ill-prepared for the throng of 50,000 that are about to descend on the city, adding: "There's definitely going to be guys that are going to be hurt."

Cleveland has already quintupled its riot insurance protection to $50 million.

Are the people who live here happy about hosting Trump and the Republicans for this four-day extravaganza that runs from July 18 to the 21?

Some obviously are. The GCP's Roman estimates that the event will bring in at least $200 million and perhaps double that. Conventioneers will fill up hotels like the newly built Hilton, and they'll visit attractions such as Heinen's grocery store, a stained-glass-domed temple to food in downtown. "Cleveland is camera-ready," said The New York Times, and "it has much to do with the forthcoming Republican National Convention."

"We believe this investment will have short-term media benefits," said Roman, but he added that the real success will come in four to five years.

However, the cameras may focus on the other Cleveland, too. "Cleveland is clearly a "Tale of Two Cities," said Rokakis. The shock of the 2008 recession turned it into "the most distressed large city in the U.S.," according to Economic Innovation Group, which uses abandoned housing as part of its yardstick.

Cleveland's budget is also on the ropes. Facing a multimillion-dollar shortfall in 2017, Mayor Frank Jackson is proposing a hike in the city's municipal income tax. Otherwise, he warns of mass layoffs and a devastating decline in city services, 60 percent of which now goes to police.

Cleveland's problems are typical of much of urban America, but even worse. As residents fled from the "other city" of East Cleveland, it ended up with more than 12,000 abandoned properties, including homes, schools and factories. More than half could be beyond saving. Steelmaking was replaced by "copper scrapping": stealing pipes and electrical wire. In areas like Slavic City the problem became so bad that the smell of gas from ripped out pipes permeated the neighborhood.

A lot of money has flowed into the downtown to revitalize it, helping attract millennials and empty-nesters who want to live in an area with the second-largest theater district in the country. All this lavish attention on the downtown -- and nearby University Center -- looks good on camera, admitted Roldo Bartimole, author of a muckraking newsletter on city politics. "But the payoff is only four days, and there are children in the nearby suburbs who don't have enough to eat," Bartimole said. "We have Gilded Age politicians here."

Ned Hill, a former dean of Cleveland State University's college of urban affair who now teaches at Ohio State University, said Cleveland's leadership is concerned about the "great divide." But the reality is that the city's old source of revenue -- manufacturing -- is gone for good. Tourism and entertainment are a large part of the future and should help ease the unemployment problem for under skilled workers. Investment in the downtown has saved the city and brought back the middle-class.

"If people see a walkable downtown, they'll want to live there," said Hill. And that's what he hopes the country will see next week. But he admitted that "all this great stuff is just a life raft, and if the schools don't work, the long-term health of the city is fragile."

What will happen next week? Cleveland officials believe that partying Republicans, along with outside agitators who may come to disrupt them, can be handled. Homegrown anger is the real threat, both now and in the future.

In the end, it comes down to the same thing that took the Cavaliers and Indians to the top of the heap -- teamwork -- and people like LeBron James, who came back to play basketball in the city he cares very much about.

If the police and politicians, business and community leaders can work together, then a city that's fighting for its future may be able to survive the next week.

  • Ed Leefeldt

    Ed Leefeldt is an award-winning investigative and business journalist who has worked for Reuters, Bloomberg and Dow Jones, and contributed to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. He is also the author of The Woman Who Rode the Wind, a novel about early flight.