It is hard to believe Cleveland was once a shining star among American cities.
The year was 1936, and local leaders staged an event to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Cleveland becoming a city and showcase achievements in business and industry, not only here but throughout the Great Lakes.
Choosing the lakefront as the most visible and convenient location, they named the event the Great Lakes Exposition. It attracted more than 7 million visitors over two summers with educational exhibits, ethnic food, and a water show starring Eleanor Holm and Johnny Weismuller that was reportedly the finest ever produced.
At the time, Cleveland was feeling good about itself. Its businesses were growing, its cultural institutions were growing, and its population was growing. To all the world, Cleveland was a great city on a great lake.
Ever since learning about the Great Lakes Expo, I have wanted to recapture the excitement and optimism it represented.
Because my life has not been a movie, I had given up on going back to the future. Only recently did it occur to me that we must go forward to find our future. We now need to complete what we started and become (a) a great city, (b) on a great lake, (c) on a great lakefront.
I hope some of you will agree we are on the way to becoming a great city on a great lake. We are making significant progress in building world-class corporations, medical centers, universities and arts organizations. We are also on the way to building a powerful Great Lakes economy.
However, the missing piece is perhaps most important: We are without the physical symbol that tells the world who we are and where we are going; we are missing a great lakefront.
Cleveland needs to move Burke Lakefront Airport and build a lakefront that matches the reality of Cleveland as a world-class city prepared to compete in the global economy.
I hadn’t given much thought to the lakefront until I attended a recent luncheon. More than 200 people attended to hear representatives from the Port of Cleveland, City Hall and a wind power organization talk about how the city can make the most of its lakefront.
After 30 minutes of remarks, the only thing the audience had learned is that the port is all for having a port in Cleveland, the wind power executive is all for placing wind turbines in the lake, and that Mayor Jackson was all for progress, whether it be on land or water.
No one had even raised the issue of moving the airport. Not until the last question of the day did the airport come up.
“Every time a question has been raised about making the lakefront something special — building beaches, parks, high rises, amphitheaters, restaurants, coffee houses, offices —the answer is always the same: We can’t because the airport is in the way,” a man said. “Why don’t we move the airport?”
The room erupted in applause. It was the question everyone was waiting for. It never did get answered. It was time to go. As we were leaving, I overheard a woman say to her companions, “When it comes to the lakefront, this city is stuck on stupid.”
I laughed. Not just because it was funny. I laughed because that is the same comment said about county government three years ago: We were stuck on stupid and would never change.
I knew what we had to do: We had to move the airport and reinvent the lakefront.
As far as I can tell, there are four reasons why the task will be difficult: (1) A handful of big corporations use the airport, value the airport and reportedly have threatened to leave town if it is moved; (2) the airport makes money the city does not want to lose; (3) past efforts to reinvent the lakefront have failed because they were sold to the community as amenities for residents, a poor sell in a tough economy; (4) it is harder to change the future than preserve the past.
If problems are opportunities in work clothes, reinventing the lakefront is a job for Cintas. In the face of such overwhelming challenges, what could possibly be worth the effort?
A world-class lakefront will deliver the two groups on whom our economic future depends: bright and talented knowledge workers and tourists.
To be absolutely honest about it, which many civic leaders and politicians won’t be, the only success we have ever had in attracting these people in my lifetime was when the Flats was jumping. Now it’s not jumping, and neither are we.
We need to get hopping again, and nothing has the potential to do that like the lakefront — not medical marts and not casinos. A world-class lakefront can be a powerful magnet to attract bright and talented college graduates and tourists.
Ordinary people do have the power to change the future, for themselves and their children. Changing Cuyahoga County government was a major victory. Reinventing Cleveland’s lakefront will be another.
If you’d like to join a group of like-minded people who are going to reinvent the lakefront, join us for our first meeting in June. For more information, e-mail me at