Monday, May 15, 2017
Fallout from Q deal will be enduring
A different sort of transformation may be end result
Win or lose, the principals in the controversy over whether the public should fork over $288 million dollars to enhance the profitability of Quicken Loans Arena for its principal tenant and operator have collectively ushered in a new day.
Not since the Kucinich years has the business community encountered a challenge as serious as the one currently being mounted by citizens who object to the corporate subsidies being demanded by wealthy private interests.
Back in the mid-seventies, the long-standing dominance of corporate interests was temporarily stymied by the determined will of the city’s ‘Boy Mayor” — the diminutive Kucinich was elected to his single two-year term at age 31. His refusal to sell the municipally owned electric plant to its private rival led to a stand off that resulted in local banks pushing the city into default by refusing the routine roll over of some city bonds.
While Kucinich was ultimately vindicated by the revelation that the Illuminating Company had conspired to run Muny Light into the ground, the corporate community nonetheless molded that shameful behavior into a business-friendly narrative of the city’s turnaround, namely, the ushering in of a public-private partnership that began with the Voinovich years.
For the last 40 years, this public-private pas de deux has been relentlessly cited as justification for the siphoning of hundreds of millions of dollars in support of projects the business community favored but was unwilling to pay for. And while we now can boast of an attractive downtown, with a thriving food scene, a hip entertainment district, and a growing residential market at our core, it has come at a heavy cost to many local neighborhoods that once symbolized the heart of what made our city unique. There has been no trickle out and no trickle down.
To be sure, what we witness today in Cleveland’s devastated neighborhoods cannot be laid entirely at the feet of our leading civic citizens. Larger forces — including globalization, technology, the war on drugs, deindustrialization, the 2008 financial meltdown, population flight, and state disinvestment — have all contributed to the growing inequities that can be seen in hollowed out neighborhoods and even some parts of our first ring suburbs.
But civic and corporate leaders can be cited for their repeated failure to come up with innovative responses to mitigate the effects of these larger forces. Brick and mortar as first and primary response is not the solution to Cleveland’s problems.
Cleveland’s downtrodden and neglected residents and neighborhoods have found champions in the form of some activist civic organizations, principally Greater Cleveland Congregations and the Cuyahoga County Progressive Caucus.
GCC in particular is proving itself to be a worthy ally of Cleveland’s masses. It is well organized, sufficiently resourced, clear-eyed and dogged. Predictably, its leaders have been mischaracterized and demonized, no doubt a backhanded tribute to the fact that their spiritual underpinnings have not made them weak-kneed sisters. And while they may have made some tactical missteps in seeking to initiate a dialogue with the city’s movers and shakers, their adversaries have made the more fundamental error of refusing to engage. The Cavaliers and their public partners — the city and the county — have consistently sought to stonewall GCC and to work around them by allying with more pliable partners that have demonstrated no interest in changing the status quo.
The refusal of the Cavaliers, the weakness of our elected officials, and the failure of the business community to exercise any leadership, has led the city to a dangerous precipice. The likelihood is great that GCC, CCPC and their union allies will in the next week or so turn in far more than the minimum 6,000 valid signatures necessary to force a referendum by Cleveland voters on whether the city should commit a minimum of $88 million for an expanded sports arena. Few doubt that if the issue goes on the ballot, the current deal will die. And that referendum campaign would unfold without the mayor or a single one of the 12 council members who voted for the deal enthusiastically campaigning for it. They will mostly be trying to change the subject in hopes of getting re-elected.
It would not serve the community if public officials or the Cavs resort to the courts and find a way to nullify the referendum effort. The Jackson administration used a similar extra-ballot tactic last year to kill the $15 minimum wage campaign, running to Columbus to get an anti-urban legislature to pass a bill killing the initiative. The mayor was right to oppose that legislation, but his tactic eroded a good portion of his political capital. His inability to forge an emotional connection with voters and his pipefitter’s approach to problem solving are not going to sustain another end around.
Cleveland’s philanthropic and business leaders with a long-term stake in this community — we don’t put Dan Gilbert in that category — are going to have to step up and address the community’s critical neighborhood needs if the Q deal is to go forward in any fashion. They may not want to deal with GCC, but they have lost their leverage to mandate who gets to sit at the table.
In normal times, civic and business leaders could have sat on the sidelines as the World Champion Cavaliers seduced out of touch legislators and their chief executives into accepting this lopsided deal, which, truth to tell, is actually a convenient hostage to force the kind of discussion about equity this community has long avoided.
The real question is what kind of community do we want to be? What do we value? If we can’t get the right answer to that question, then another world title or two won’t really matter much. If we don't have it now, then when will we have it?
We have some reason to believe that a few civic and business leaders are looking for ways to create a meaningful dialogue that could render the referendum moot. But time is short.
Perhaps city leaders could emulate local hero and leader extraordinaire LeBron James: subordinate egos, put team first, keep eyes on prize, and act with urgency. We think that approach could get a reasonable deal struck in the time it will take to vanquish either the Celtics or the Wizards. Then we could truly be All In.
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