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Cleveland, Ohio, is moving to update its image and its economy. The city known for old-line industries, Lake Erie, LeBron James and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame wants to make itself a center of blockchain technology, the software behind cryptocurrencies like bitcoin. Here's Jeff St. Clair of member station WKSU.
JEFF ST CLAIR, BYLINE: Believeland was Cleveland's catchphrase when, in 2016, LeBron James and the Cavaliers delivered the city's first sports championship in half a century. Now LeBron is gone, and Clevelanders may be looking for something new to believe in. Bernie Moreno thinks that should be embracing Cleveland as a tech town. Moreno is a blockchain evangelist and luxury car dealer who is quick to resist a sports comparison.
BERNIE MORENO: I know LeBron James, and I'm no LeBron James (laughter), OK? So let's get that out of the way.
ST CLAIR: Moreno is trying to marshal his salesmanship skills to promote Cleveland as a center for blockchain innovation.
MORENO: If you're going to have a blockchain startup, this is the place you'd do it. If you're going to invest in blockchain startups, this is the place I would invest in. And if you're a developer, you're a student who wants to do blockchain development, Cleveland's the place where you would do it.
ST CLAIR: Blockchain is basically a digital lockbox that stores any kind of transaction in a secure block that's shared across independent computers. It's the technology behind the cryptocurrency Bitcoin but is quickly transitioning to other uses, like digital home deeds, municipal bonds...
MORENO: Digital car titles. There's digital driver's licenses, birth certificates, college degrees, medical records.
ST CLAIR: One Cleveland startup is even testing a blockchain-based voting app. Hilary Carter is managing director of the Blockchain Research Institute in Toronto, a think tank laying out road maps for business uses of the technology.
HILARY CARTER: Cleveland stepped up to be the very first city outside of Canada to want access to the thought leadership that we're creating at the BRI.
ST CLAIR: Here's what Moreno says it would take to build Blockland. The city would need to attract around 1,000 software developers to the region who will help launch a couple dozen blockchain-based startups. He's planning to open a 100,000-square-foot downtown campus to incubate those companies, complete with a K-12 school.
MORENO: We call the school Genesis because in the blockchain world, genesis is the first block in the blockchain.
ST CLAIR: Moreno has also put together a dream team of Cleveland's civic leaders to help organize the Blockland Cleveland conference in December. Suzanne Rivera is vice president of research at Case Western Reserve University and likes the ambitious idea.
SUZANNE RIVERA: I really think of it as a movement. This is going to be the way of the future. We can either let it pass us by, or we can seize this opportunity.
ST CLAIR: But many here struggle with understanding blockchain itself and its potential benefits.
WAVERLY WILLIS: It's regular, blue-collar guys that's saying, why do I need to know about this stuff? And so you need a person like me to be able to explain it.
ST CLAIR: Waverly Willis is the first barber in Cleveland to accept bitcoin as payment and an early backer of the Blockland project. He says Cleveland needs a plan that goes beyond the city's CEOs and academic leaders to lift people in his neighborhood. Bernie Moreno agrees.
MORENO: This whole thing works when the average citizen of Cleveland is dramatically smarter than the average citizen anywhere else relative to blockchain technology.
ST CLAIR: From Believeland to Blockland, it's a technology Hail Mary of sorts from a city competing to stake its claim as a blockchain capital. For NPR News, I'm Jeff St. Clair.
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