Cleveland's Empty Spaces Brim With Potential

Decades of manufacturing losses and population declines have left Cleveland with lots of empty warehouses and open spaces. But a growing number of creative Clevelanders spot opportunity in these places. One turned a sprawling warehouse into an indoor mountain bike track. A staffer at a struggling downtown mall is turning it into an urban greenhouse. And an artist is helping revitalize a tough inner-city neighborhood with his acclaimed papermaking studio. Experts say it's projects like these, not big convention centers and casinos, that will turn around former manufacturing cities, and Cleveland is helping lead the way. Dan Bobkoff of member station WCPN reports.

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Cleveland is open for new ideas from people who see opportunities blooming in blighted buildings, declining malls and empty lots.

Let's turn to Dan Bobkoff of member station WCPN in Cleveland.

DAN BOBKOFF: Ray Petro had the kind of idea you could argue could only be pulled off in a city like Cleveland. He's a re-modeler by trade and an avid mountain biker. But that's hard to do during Cleveland's snowy winters. So, a few years ago, he came up with a plan.

Mr. RAY PETRO (Re-modeler): I just happened to look in the paper and I'd kind of given up on the idea.

BOBKOFF: What he wanted was a big warehouse to build an indoor haven for mountain bikers when it's too cold to ride outside.

Mr. PETRO: And I saw this little ad that said clean space, low rent. I phoned it up and I said: Can I speak to whoever has the space? And theyre like, Well, you want to speak to Suzy. And Im like, I'm thinking, man, Suzy is not going to get this.

Ms. SUZY REMER (President, Midwest Box Company): So I said, sure, I talk to crazy people all day long.

BOBKOFF: Landlord Suzy Remer did get it. Ray Petro wanted to fill her vacant and sprawling industrial building with ramps and jumps made of wood and concrete. It looks like an unfinished basement.

Ms. REMER: Youre in this old building and theres all these crazy pipes and steel and everything. And when youre in here, it almost reminds you, in this weird sense, that youre out in the woods with like big oak trees and branches and weird things over your head that dont make any sense.

Ms. JENNIFER THOMAS (Director, Civic Innovation Lab): I said, Ray, you know, can I see the blueprint for the space when you created it a couple of years ago? He said, There is no blueprint.

BOBKOFF: Jennifer Thomas has become one of Rays biggest supporters. She runs the foundation-funded Civic Innovation Lab, which gave Ray the $30,000 grant once he was up and running. The money professionalized the operation and made it more of a real business.

Ms. THOMAS: Ray really understood his customer before he built the park.

BOBKOFF: Only a few years since he maxed out his credit cards to get it started, the park is a success. Twenty thousand riders came last year - 80 percent of them from out of state. Rays is profitable, even though it only costs about 20 bucks to spend a day there. And its spreading success to nearby hotels and restaurants.

Meanwhile, in downtown Cleveland, Vicky Poole had her own wild idea for transforming a struggling mall.�

Ms. VICKY POOLE (Marketing Director, Galleria): Doesnt it smell awesome? This is basil and this has all been harvested last week. Thats why...

BOBKOFF: Poole is the marketing director for the Galleria at Erieview, a huge glass structure only a few blocks from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Name brand retail stores pulled out eight years ago and its not much more than a food court now. But Poole sees food as the Gallerias future. Since the mall resembles a greenhouse, she decided to turn it into one.

Ms. POOLE: Now, thats got a full section of the lettuce. Thats a romaine thats growing right now.

BOBKOFF: She calls the project Gardens Under Glass, and its quickly becoming the malls main attraction. In hydroponic beds she grows lettuce, tomatoes, peppers, cilantro. She has dreams of vertical gardens on the malls glass sides.� For now, its just a pilot project, and the first few crop turns sold out quickly as restaurants and the public snatched up the fresh produce.

Ms. POOLE: My ultimate goal would be to utilize every square inch that I could in the building to demonstrate growing.

BOBKOFF: Like Petro, Poole received a grant from the Civic Innovation Lab to expand this urban farm. And the project is showing signs that it could revitalize the mall.�

Ms. POOLE: I have talked with a company that carries green cleaning supplies. We had a girl that had a recycled gift shop. So theyre all coming and theyre interested.

BOBKOFF: Dan Kildee of the national nonprofit Center for Community Progress is an expert on revitalizing vacant and abandoned properties. He says city leaders tend to ignore the little projects like a mountain bike park or an urban garden, instead focusing on huge, splashy plans.

Mr. DAN KILDEE (Center for Community Progress): Build a great big casino complex. Build a great big convention center.

BOBKOFF: Cleveland has advanced plans to build one of each.�But Kildee says cities need lots of little projects to turn around former manufacturing capitals like Cleveland and Detroit. Some ideas will fail, others will take off.�

Mr. KILDEE: They dont have the sort of overnight effect that a major investment has. But what weve learned - and believe me, I come from Flint, Michigan as it is, as exciting as it is to see one of those great big projects show up, its devastating when they leave just as fast.

BOBKOFF: For NPR News, I'm Dan Bobkoff in Cleveland.

SIMON: So in scores of ways, people in Cleveland are remaking their city, creating a Cleveland that maybe isn't on the scale of New York or Chicago, but in its own grand way can be superb.

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