How Cleveland Could Rise Again

In 1950, the population of Cleveland, Ohio, was almost a million people. Sixty years later, it's a third of that, due in part to the declining manufacturing base many formerly great cities have experienced. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson is touting a novel idea for rebuilding his city and tells host Scott Simon about lessons learned and visions for a more sustainable Cleveland.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

We sat down with the mayor of Cleveland this week, as we began to report some stories from the city that is beset with high unemployment and a continuing foreclosure crisis. The mayor likes to sit in the dark. Mayor Frank Jackson occupies one of the most splendid mayoral offices in the country, dominated by grand tapestries depicting General Moses Cleveland offering beads and whiskey to Native Americans to let him survey the land along Lake Erie that became the city that bears his name.

Mayor Jackson is sensitive to lights. He wants to keep costs down at City Hall. He also sparked a controversy by trying to sign a single source contract to make LED lights for municipal use with a Chinese company who would base their North American headquarters in Cleveland and hire 350 people. But some city council members questioned the price and length of the contract and the quality of the lights.

Mayor Jackson has to offer something more than beads and whiskey to companies to come to his city. So we asked what kind of short urgent speech he gives to convince businesses to come to Cleveland.

Mayor FRANK JACKSON (Democrat, Cleveland): That's a salesman and a politician. I dont do those kinds of things. I need to get into some details, I'll try to coral them, you know, and monopolize some time. But its basically things are in flux. Things are in constant transition, and the old way of doing things will dig us deeper in a hole. We have to do things differently.

SIMON: Does this mean selling the city in a different way to businesses?

Mayor JACKSON: No...

SIMON: Than you did a generation ago?

Mayor JACKSON: Yeah. I guess you could use the word selling. I prefer to use the word providing opportunities. I'll give you an example. If you look at LED lighting - LED lighting, with the proper technology, can reduce energy consumption, reduce your light bill, save taxpayers money, reduce the cost of government. So we are developing specifications around that need as opposed to a vendor coming to us say, well, this is all we have, take it or leave it. We say we're going leave it.

What we want is this: If you meet these specifications and conditions, we will give you a contract to provide us that good or service. In addition to that, we're requiring them to establish a facility in Cleveland that will employ people. So not only am I reducing the cost of government, I'm also increasing revenue to government, which gives me a better opportunity to provide the service, which is our bottom line. Our bottom line is not profit. Our bottom line is service.

SIMON: With this win-win situation, why do you think so many people got upset?

Mayor JACKSON: Well, you got upset because who's clock getting clean. You know, if you have a company come to Cleveland, and particularly if it's a foreign company, and they will invest in Cleveland in terms of a facility...

SIMON: This was a Chinese company.

Mayor JACKSON: This was a Chinese company. Invest in terms of a facility, and will create jobs in Cleveland, and their technology is superior to any other local, then who you think people are going to buy their product from?

SIMON: Well, what's the status of the contract?

Mayor JACKSON: I've tabled the legislation because this is a new model. This new business model, I dont know any other urban center that's doing this. So as a result of that, we didnt have a template as to how to proceed. And so it was a little loose and sloppy in some areas. And so in order for me to protect the future of Cleveland and this model that I'm developing from criticism, which as you know, I'm getting, then I needed to have it tighter.

SIMON: Mr. Mayor, as harmful as this economic downturn has been in the lives of millions of people across the country and thousands of people here, has it nevertheless afforded Cleveland, and maybe some other cities, the chance to position themselves for the future - rethink?

Mayor JACKSON: That is - youre absolutely right. And I will say that Clevelanders are tenacious people. Weve come from different backgrounds, different ethnic groups, and all of those backgrounds and groups have had to overcome tremendous challenges as people and as cultures. And so we're use to hard times. We're use to things not going our way or being a bed of roses. But we survive.

Substantive change and major decisions are never made in good times, because everybody believes things are going fine. Substantive and transformative decisions are always made in difficult times, because we have to change our ways and the way we do business, whether socially or economically or politically.

SIMON: You've got to have someone major make that decision...

Mayor JACKSON: Well, that's what - I think that's my job. And of course I'm getting pushback. But the greatest advocates of change are the greatest defenders of the status quo. As we say on the street: Everybody talk a good game but ain't nobody going to bust a grape. Meaning that they can advocate for change and the right stuff but when it comes to doing, they ain't there, they dont show up. So the greatest advocates of change, whether it's conceptual, philosophical or whatever, are also the greatest defenders of the status quo. That is why some decades ago Cleveland was left behind.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mayor JACKSON: And if we want to defend the status quo, then we can cry over our beer somewhere about woe is us, because we'll be left behind again. And I do not intend that to happen on my watch.

SIMON: The mayor of Cleveland, Frank Jackson. Thanks so much for spending time with us in this magnificent office.

Mayor JACKSON: Well, thank you very much.

SIMON: Next week, Randall Jamison. He's been looking for work for 19 months and is worried and tired, but committed to his city.

Mr. RANDALL JAMISON: I'm not looking to go anywhere else. This is my home. I'm going to stay here until I die. You want someone stable? I'm not going to be looking to jump the fence every five years. I'll stay there. That's my promise. I just got to convince someone to make an offer.

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