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Cleveland Mayor Spending Plans Aim to Reinvigorate City

Two centerpieces of Justin Bibb’s proposal are a $50 million plan to attract employers back to the city and a $15 million investment in the city’s southeast side. The City Council will review the plan in the coming days.

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb
Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb makes his opening remarks before his State of the City Address Wednesday night April 19, 2023 at East Tech high school in Cleveland. (David Petkiewicz/
(TNS) — Details are coming into focus around two of Mayor Justin Bibb’s big spending plans for federal aid that aim to reverse decades of job loss in Cleveland and reinvigorate parts of the city that need it most.

The centerpiece of Bibb’s plans for the last large remaining portion of Cleveland’s federal aid is a $50-million plan to clean-up and assemble land to help attract employers back to the city. Another key piece of the plan, in keeping with campaign pledges, is Bibb’s proposed $15-million investment in the southeast neighborhoods of Lee-Harvard, Mount Pleasant and Union-Miles.

In a Tuesday meeting with and The Plain Dealer’s editorial board, Bibb framed both proposals as down payments – public money meant to spark additional investments from private businesses, nonprofits and others. Bibb sees this strategy as an opportunity to get more bang from the federal buck, to bring in more jobs and breathe new life into neighborhoods.

His $50-million site assembly fund amounts to the largest single American Rescue Plan-funded proposal the city has pursued with its $511 million share of the federal aid — and with good reason, the mayor said.

“I felt this was the best thing we could do to really make sure we have a pro-growth, pro-jobs vision for the city of Cleveland. Because if we can’t grow our population, we can’t grow our tax base. And that doesn’t give us the resources to address the structural issues that we see in poverty and violent crime, and addressing health disparities, and making sure we can fix our roads, fix our streets and fix our bridges,” Bibb said.

Bibb unveiled the spending plans two weeks ago, and they are expected to be vetted by City Council in the coming days.

To lay out some of the details, Bibb joined Chief of Staff Bradford Davy, finance Chief Ahmed Abonamah, development Chief Jeff Epstein, Team NEO’s Christine Nelson, and consultant Brad Whitehead in Tuesday’s meeting with and The Plain Dealer. Here’s what we learned from that conversation.

$50-Million Site Assembly Fund

The goal: Attract and retain jobs that offer family-sustaining wages, after decades of employers fleeing to the suburbs and beyond, and big population drops. The labor participation rate in Cleveland lags the state; Whitehead attributed much of that trend to workers who can’t drive or don’t have a car and are unable to connect with far-flung suburban jobs. Bibb wants to bring jobs, including trade jobs, within closer proximity of workers, “to bring back the kind of middle-class jobs that led to the city’s initial surge in the 20th century,” Abonamah said.

The challenge: Businesses want land that is 10-plus acres and ready to develop. Many prefer sites that are 25 to 30 acres. Public entities, including the city, own some 30 percent of the land in Cleveland, but they are largely brownfields that require environmental clean-up and are scattered in bits and pieces across the city.

The method: Assemble and clean up large enough swaths of land so employers want to locate, re-locate, expand and stay within city limits. Bibb hopes to fundraise – from the state, county and elsewhere — at least $50 million on top of the city’s planned $50 million investment. Taken together, Bibb said that money could ready more than 1,000 acres for development and create 65,000 jobs.

By the numbers: The Intel mega-site outside of Columbus has drawn much attention, but Nelson said most employers that could come to Cleveland aren’t looking for that much land. Many, she said, prefer 25- to 30-acre plots, and Bibb’s plan would be focused on that “sweet spot,” as Abonamah called it. Since last June alone, Cleveland had to pass on seven JobsOhio inquiries for job sites, requiring 15 to 30 acres, simply because the city didn’t have any locations of that size to offer. They were largely manufacturing jobs. Meanwhile, the U.S. in the last quarter-century saw a 23 percent increase in jobs overall. In Ohio, the figure remained flat. In Cuyahoga County, it dropped 11.5 percent. But in Cleveland, it dipped nearly 22 percent, Abonamah said.

Bibb says: “This is probably one of the biggest things we can do in the city for the next generation, to not only turn around our population, but also to create real, good jobs in the urban core of Cleveland that’ll change the economic trajectory of Northeast Ohio.”

$15 Million for the Southeast Side

The goal: Reinvigorate three disinvested, majority-Black southeast neighborhoods that Bibb describes as a “prime example of what happens to a part of our community due to systemic structural racism, redlining and white flight.” Bibb is targeting Lee-Harvard, Mount Pleasant and Union-Miles for reasons that Davy described as “one part practical and one part technical.”

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” he said, noting this could be a model that is eventually replicated elsewhere in Cleveland. But also, the chosen neighborhoods include a lot of city-owned, vacant or otherwise available land.

Bibb also said he’s looking to build off existing strengths, such as recent public projects or Lee-Harvard’s status as a homeowner-heavy “middle” neighborhood.

The challenge: Money is limited and needs are great. So, how should the city determine where to invest the federal aid in these neighborhoods? Bibb has chosen to target the money in five “micro-geographies” – areas along East 93rd, 116th and 130th streets, down a portion of Kinsman Avenue, and around the intersection of Lee and Harvard avenues. These areas are transit corridors and include a concentration of public land and amenities, Epstein said. They also have the best bones to achieve a concept Bibb has championed, known as the “15-minute city”, where residents can get their basic needs met – like school, employment, doctor visits — within a 15-minute trip from home.

The method: Bibb is looking to take an “all of government approach” to the southeast side, by pairing the ARPA money with a surge of everyday city services. That includes more code enforcement, clean ups, curb and sidewalk repair, painting hydrants and fixing light poles. Bibb is also calling on every cabinet official to implement “short term interventions” that could complement the federal aid spending, from boosting police “walk and talk” foot patrols, to hosting expungement clinics and increasing food programs. To be successful, the city will need major private investments on top of the ARPA funds. Bibb said preliminary conversations with some “banking partners” and foundations indicate “there’s a lot of financial appetite to put their capital to work” in the areas he is hoping to target.

By the numbers: Bibb’s southeast side plans include $5 million in grants and loans to help residents rehabilitate up to 50 homes and repair up to 150 homes. It would provide $5 million to improve commercial corridors. And another $5 million would go to “catalytic” projects, such as redeveloping the former John F. Kennedy High School building.

Bibb says: “This is a clear example of a new approach … in terms of hyperlocal, targeted-scale economic development. And we believe after we embark on this effort with the southeast side, this model of direct government intervention [and the ‘all-government’ approach]… can scale to other parts of the city.”

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