As summer winds down, the 2011 Summer Session of the Civic Leadership Institute also comes to a close. Our summer class, we were told, topped the 300-member mark for lifetime Institute attendees.
The last program of the session focused on continuing the conversation beyond the walls of the City Club, where the Institute has met regularly over the past 2 months. Mike Shafarenko, president of The Civic Commons was on hand to facilitate a discussion surrounding key issues facing the Northeast Ohio region.
Those key issues were: transportation, economic development, the environment, public education, and lakefront redevelopment. In a brainstorming session at an earlier meeting, attendees had arrived at consensus that these 5 categories were the most pressing issues we currently face in Cleveland. In that second meeting, we formed small groups on our chosen category and discussed what small act we might accomplish to help move the issue closer to resolution. In the lakefront group, we talked about determining how land along the shoreline was being used – which parts were public, private, commercial, etc. Needless to say, each group was confronted with many challenges in determining how to move forward.
The important thing, of course, is to move forward. The Institute’s final meeting gave the floor to representatives working directly these complicated and challenging issue areas:
Transportation: Joseph Calabrese, CEO of the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority spoke about how RTA’s transportation system of buses and rail is saving customers $7-9,000 annually, improving public safety and providing an environmentally friendly alternative to personal travel. For many residents, he noted, RTA is their primary vehicle. Urban sprawl, population loss and the decline in public support were cited as the main threats to the expansion of Cleveland's public transportation system. The RTA will have a primary role to play in the upcoming development projects downtown, which include the Medical Mart and casino. Many of the proposed projects would not be feasible without the access RTA provides to these new ventures.
Economic development: Speaking of new ventures, Robert Hatta of JumpStart has spent years working in that space, growing familiar with the risk culture associated with high-tech startups. His work as Vice President of Entrepreneurial Talent focuses on orienting employees to the culture. He also works to attract the "boomerang" ideamakers back to this region to grow their ideas. Through small, strategic investments to innovative tech ventures, JumpStart is importing outside venture capital to grow new businesses locally. The organization’s $23 million in investments in 55 companies has yielded another $175 million from external investors so far.
Public education: Cleveland’s schools are the only municipal school system to be under mayoral control. Chief of Education Monyka Price explained that the arrangement, established in 1998, means that the mayor appoints the school board and is kept apprised, although not directly involved, in the system’s development. Ms. Price noted that graduation rates have improved from 30% to 62.8% in the interim, and fiscal stability has also improved. Ms. Price’s recommendations for the path forward included community involvement through tutoring, mentoring and volunteering. She also mentioned that companies could offer internship opportunities for students, and individuals can sponsor uniform, book and supply drives.
The environment: Stephanie Penn Spear is founder and executive director of EcoWatch, an Ohio-based nonprofit media source reporting on grassroots environmental issues. Now circulating over 80,000 copies, EcoWatch is set to become a 24/7 news service with its online presence. Ms. Spear argued that job growth and environmental sustainability are no longer diametrically opposed, citing the local foods movement as an example of the region’s economic viability. Key next steps included fostering greater environmental consciousness, in both business and in personal life, as well as understanding the importance of policy change with regard to environmental practices.
Lakefront redevelopment: Tony Coyne presented many incredibly interesting renderings of the city of Cleveland from more than a century ago, when the downtown Mall was first being imagined by world-renowned architects as part of the City Beautiful movement. Chair of the Cleveland Planning Commission, Coyne noted that the area where The Rock Hall and the Science Center now stand was originally intended as the site for the train terminal. As plans progressed, however, focus on the lakefront moved inward toward Public Square, where Terminal Tower now stands. Coyne noted that budget issues drive contemporary lakefront planning. Other major cities whose redevelopment projects have been successful – Millennium Park in Chicago, Fountain Square in Cincinnati, City Garden in St. Louis – have been funded in large part by private investment.
After the guest presentations, Mike Shafarenko supplied the logical bridge for continuing the conversation by explaining how his organization, The Civic Commons, came into existence. Created to serve as an engagement platform, The Civic Commons blends traditional community meetings with online engagement in an effort to turn talk into community action and eventual change. When we foster an environment of educated, informed discussion about the issues that people care about, and give them the chance to take action, we can turn up the level of citizen involvement and create a culture of real, not just virtual, civic engagement.
At the very end of the session, Dennis Lafferty reappeared to thank the attendees, letting us know that completion in the Institute endows graduates with the capacity for influence on the civic agenda as well as a refined comprehension of Cleveland’s needs, opportunities and future possibilities. These qualities, he noted, will lead us to unexpected opportunities. I'm confident that while there is much to be accomplished in Cleveland, with 300+ Institute graduates we’re clearly developing the manpower.