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Normally when politicians go to groundbreaking events, the kind where they all put on hard hats and pretend to shovel, they usually make speeches about how great this new development will be for the city. That’s not the case for Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson.

Mayor Frank Jackson (photo: City of Cleveland Photographic Bureau)

When he took the podium last month at the kick-off for a new convention center and medical device showroom, he spoke for just 90 seconds.

Download audio file (CleveLeadership.mp3)
“Even though it’s not a panacea,” he said at the event, “it is an essential part of what we plan to do for downtown Cleveland.”

Mayor Jackson is not a man prone to hyperbole. One of his famous—or infamous-phrases is, “it is what it is.” Some call him the quiet mayor. He doesn’t crave the limelight.  At that same event, new Ohio Governor John Kasich called Jackson “humble.”

How often do you hear that of a politician?

“Some days you get the feeling this town doesn’t even have a mayor,” said Mike Roberts, a journalist in Cleveland since 1963. He says the mayor’s personality is his downfall. When there’s a crisis or event, the mayor is rarely out in front.

“It takes him a while to realize something has happened in the city,” Roberts said.

Mayor Jackson (left) at the groundbreaking for the Medical Mart

You get the sense here that some Clevelanders are yearning for a big personality mayor, like Chicago’s Richard Daley who can bulldoze his way to progress. Longtime Cleveland councilman Mike Polensek is in that group.

“You talk to folks in Chicago when I’ve been there, what do they talk about when they speak of Daley? ‘Tough guy, his way or the highway.’ But they’ll also tell you great passion,” Polensek said.

Mayor Jackson’s answer: “Then they need to find another mayor,” he said in an interview with Changing Gears.

The tall and lean 64 year old was first elected in 2005. We sat in his spacious office for over an hour as he dismissed critics who say he’s not enough of a cheerleader for Cleveland.

“I could cheer all day long and talk about the great assets and not have a balanced budget and what difference does it make,” he said. “It has no substantive impact for Cleveland.”

Jackson sees himself as the antidote to those politicians who talk a good game and don’t get anything done. He says he is getting a lot done. Construction has begun on over $1 billion worth of developments including that convention center and a casino. And, despite the punishing recession, his administration managed to balance Cleveland’s budget with no layoffs, service cuts or tax hikes.

“Mayor Jackson has surprised everyone with his ability to manage in this incredibly challenging environment,” said Chris Thompson of the Fund for Our Economic Future.

If Jackson’s vision for the city is realized, he says investments today will make people want to live in Cleveland again. That would be quite an accomplishment. The city has been hemorrhaging population for decades. Some leave for the nearby suburbs; others leave the region altogether.

“At one time we were compared to Chicago,” said Councilman Polensek. “It was New York, Chicago, and Cleveland. Those were the three players.”

But that was before the Great Depression, and the decline of industry, and the rise of new modes of transportation. Now, Cleveland barely makes the top 50 most populous cities. Polensek says that’s because of more than just happenstance.

“What happened? We had a lack of vision.”

The history of Cleveland leadership is a story of diffuse power. There were leaders popular in the ethnic communities, or in the minority communities, or among union laborers. But there were few times when leaders spoke with one voice and one agenda.

There were high points like electing the nation’s first big city black mayor: Carl Stokes in the late 1960s. And then a decade later, a low point when a young Dennis Kucinich was in charge when Cleveland fell into default.

George Voinovich and a series of mayors spent the next few decades getting the city’s finances back in order.

But in the background, there was another undercurrent: corruption. Sometimes at City Hall, but even more so among leaders in Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is just one of 59 municipalities.

The two-year investigation brought down one of the county’s three commissioners and the auditor. Fed up, voters decided to not just throw out the leaders, but the whole form of government: replacing the three commissioners with an executive and 11 member county council.

“I think all of that corruption and all of that scandal really kind of has a chilling effect even on those who want to go into public leadership because who wants to get involved in that kind of situation?” said Ed FitzGerald.

Ed FitzGerald

As it turns out, that man does. FitzGerald is Cuyahoga County’s first chief executive. He took the helm last month as voters trusted him to restore faith and function in the county. Historically, the county’s role has been to fund human services and the prisons. But FitzGerald is trying to increase the county’s role in the region’s economic development. Journalist Mike Roberts says it could be the beginning of a shift of power from Cleveland’s mayor to the county executive.

“We’re going to have the leader that you’re going to look at and the leader that’s going to form the immediate future is FitzGerald,” Roberts said.

Mayor Jackson at an event against changing Cuyahoga County's government structure.

It’s perhaps symbolic that the Medical Mart and Convention Center under construction sits right between the downtown offices of the county executive and the city mayor. It’s a sign that, for now, both agree Cleveland still matters. Both leaders say they have a good working relationship.

But with Cleveland still the anchor of this region, it’s Mayor Jackson who today has the most power to get things done. He says his style is what the city needs right now.

“I’m effective at this time in the history of Cleveland, in the environment we live in, both social and economic,” Jackson said.

And, if Cleveland ever clamors fora big personality, he says he’ll exit stage left.

Here’s the microphone! Changing Gears has three programs this week where you can tell us what matters to you.

On the Air Listen to our leadership series, and then take part in Power and Performance, a call-in show this Thursday at 2 pm ET/1 pm CT on Michigan Radio, WBEZ and ideastream. It’s produced by Sound of Ideas, the daily public affairs program at ideastream. We’ll be broadcasting a toll-free number where you can dial in and participate.

On the Web We’re hosting a live chat here at during our call-in show. Tell your friends, and bring your ideas. The entire CG team will be here.

In Person Come to our event this Wednesday afternoon at the University of Michigan. We’re presenting, “Don’t Go!” with the Ross School of Business. We want to talk about the reasons why students don’t stay after they graduate — and what might keep people here.

What difference can a strong mayor make in the success of a city? What are the challenges our mayors and civic leaders face as we reinvent ourselves, and what are their plans to move forward?

Detroit Mayor Dave Bing

In a three-part series, Changing Gears looks at LEADERSHIP. Kate Davidson reports from Detroit on Mayor Dave Bing’s efforts to shrink and revitalize his struggling city. Dan Bobkoff reports from Cleveland, where a decidedly low-key mayor hopes to get results, and where county residents hope a new form of government will drive out corruption.

And Niala Boodhoo reports on the best-known mayor in the Great Lakes, Richard M. Daley, who is winding up 20 years in office.

Listen for our reports on partners Michigan Radio, WBEZ Chicago and ideastream Cleveland. Then on Thursday, come to the stations at 2 pm ET/1 pm CT for a call-in show produced by Sound of Ideas, a daily public affairs program from ideastream.

We’ll host a live chat here at and we hope you’ll post your thoughts on our Facebook page, too.

Cleveland kicked off its first casino development Thursday. Ohio has spent years watching its residents travel to Michigan, Indiana and Pittsburgh for gaming.

A rendering of the planned Horseshoe Casino Cleveland in the old Higbee Building

Developers say they’ll spend $350 million to convert a former department store in the center of the city into a place for slot machines and poker.

Behind all this is Dan Gilbert, the Cavaliers owner and founder of Michigan’s Quicken Loans. He sees this casino as the first phase of gaming in Cleveland. He’ll be building a casino from scratch a few blocks away. Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson says the project should create hundreds of local jobs.


Download audio file (CASINO_web.mp3)

“They’re actually talking about how can we hire people? How can we hire local contractors, local vendors and make this investment a stimulus for this economy and the people of this city and region,” he said at the unveiling.

Dan Gilbert says it the Cleveland casino will be integrated into the city, helping local businesses.

Read or listen to a longer version of this story at our partner: ideastream.

A rendering of the proposed interior.

Another look at the planned casino.

For much of the last decade, cities across our region have watched their recent college graduates flee to cities like Phoenix, but new census data show the recession has significantly changed where young people are moving.

People—especially those in their twenties—go where the jobs are. That’s why Michigan is so concerned about being the only state in the census to lose population and cities like Cleveland and Detroit have been fretting about “brain drain” to other areas: places like Phoenix, Riverside, CA, and several Florida metropolitan areas, according to University of Michigan and Brookings Institution demographer William Frey. He’s been looking at the new census data and says the great recession of the past few years has changed everything. Those Sunbelt cities no longer have cheap mortgages and plentiful jobs.

“We basically have seen these bubble places pop,” Frey said.

With few opportunities elsewhere, many young people have decided to stay in the Midwest. In Chicago, Cleveland, Buffalo and Milwaukee, the number of young people leaving fell dramatically during the recession. Pittsburgh stopped its losses altogether and actually had a slight net gain of young people moving in. While many may be living with their parents and waiting out the recession, Frey says this is an opportunity for these cities that have been trying for years to become more attractive to just these young workers.

“These areas do have a chance to show their stuff to these young people and to these college graduates. And, maybe in some cases they’ll stay,” he said.

Since World War II, migration around the country has never been lower than it is now. Frey says this period is so unusual that it’s hard to make projections about the future. He just hopes many of these young workers won’t have to live with their parents too much longer.

What the west side of Cleveland will look like once the highway is removed.

Welcome to the new and improved Changing Gears podcast. Each week, we’ll be offering you headlines from around the region, a story of the week, an essay on ways to improve our region, and some information about events going on in our states.

Up this week: Dan Bobkoff takes a look at the notion of highways. Do they no longer represent the idea of progress?  And Grand Rapids entrepreneur Rick DeVos shares his thoughts on what the Midwest needs most.

In this week’s headlines: American Airlines teams up with United to sue Chicago over the proposed O’Hare airport expansion, we take a look at the newly elected Republican governors of Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan, and a preview of  some of our Changing Gears events.


For podcast extras, check after the jump.


One of our headlines focused on the newly elected Midwestern governors. Colleagues in Wisconsin, Ohio and Michigan pitched in to provide Changing Gears with a story about them. You can hear the full story here.

Rick DeVos


We mentioned in Dan’s piece that you could visit us here for more information on his removing highways story. If you’re interested in his list of cities across the world that are removing highways, you can find that here.


This week’s Not Dead Yet featured ArtPrize founder Rick DeVos. We’ve done a few stories about ArtPrize, if you’re interested.


We want to broadcast your community events! Give us a call at (888) YOUR-NPR, or email us at

Ohio Governor John Kasich at the Medical Mart Groundbreaking (photo: Dan Bobkoff)

After years of wrangling and controversy, Cleveland’s planned Medical Mart and Convention Center broke ground today. Actually, construction started a couple of weeks ago, but today was the day the big names came to ceremonially stick shovels in the ground. The project has been controversial for years, and some wonder if it will live up to promises of making Cleveland known as a medical industry hot-spot. It’s supposed to be a big economic driver. The Medical Mart will be run by Chicago-based Merchandise Mart Properties, Inc.

Listen to a story about the groundbreaking produced for Cleveland partner WCPN:

Download audio file (MedMartWCPN.mp3)

Listen to the story for our Chicago audience at WBEZ:

Download audio file (WBEZmedmart.mp3)

A construction worker watches the groundbreaking. The project will boost construction jobs in the region. (photo: Dan Bobkoff)

A rendering of the Medical Mart in Cleveland. (Merchandise Mart Properties)

Half a century after cities across our region and country built sprawling freeways, many of those roads are reaching the end of their useful lives. Instead of rebuilding them, a growing number of cities are thinking about—or actively—removing them. That may come as a surprise.

Cleveland's West Shoreway (Thomas Ondrey / The Plain Dealer)


Download audio file (FreewaysFinal.mp3)

Download the story (mp3)

When Clevelanders hear that the city plans to convert a coastal freeway into a slower, tree-lined boulevard, you get reactions like this one from Judie Vegh.

“I think it’s a pretty bad idea for commuters,” she said. “And if it were 35 mph, I would just be later than usual.”

Within the next few years, Vegh’s commute on Cleveland’s West Shoreway will likely look very different.

A rendering of what Cleveland's West Shoreway will look like after conversion to boulevard. (Source: ODOT)

Rendering 2

Another view. The newly designed road is expected to make it easier to access Lake Erie and nearby neighborhoods. (Source: ODOT)

“This is not the traditional highway project,” said Cleveland City Planner Bob Brown. “The traditional highway project is obviously speeding things up, adding more capacity, and often ignoring the character of neighborhoods.”

Work has begun in Cleveland to better connect the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood to the waterfront. (Dan Bobkoff)

It’s quite a change. In the 1950s and 60s, freeways were seen as progress and modernity. They were part of urban renewal and planners like New York’s Robert Moses tore through neighborhoods to put up hulking steel and concrete roadways. Today, cities are looking to take them down.

The list is long. New Orleans, New Haven, Buffalo, Syracuse and San Francisco are just some US cities thinking about or actively taking freeways down.



Going Mainstream: See a List of Freeway Removal Projects from Around the World

Jim Weber, who is Akron, Ohio’s Construction Manager, says that city is studying what to do with its under-used six-lane Innerbelt that will soon need major maintenance.

“Perhaps we can remove sections of it and have it fit in better with the Akron grid system and offer an economic benefit by making land available,” he said.

Akron officials got the idea from Milwaukee which also removed a freeway and used the land for new development. It would have cost 3 to 4 times as much to reconstruct the road.

No freeway here. This neighborhood was spared a planned freeway that would have split SoHo. (Adee Braun)

I asked Tom Vanderbilt—the author of a book about traffic and what it says about us—to show me a neighborhood that’s doing well because there’s no freeway. He took me to the corner of Broome and West Broadway in New York’s SoHo neighborhood.

(Read Tom Vanderbilt’s Slate series on unbuilt highways–including in Chicago.)

Tom Vanderbilt in New York (Adee Braun)

“Especially in the past two decades it has become an incredibly vibrant, expensive, thronged with tourists, urban center,” Vanderbilt said.

SoHo is one of the fanciest shopping districts in New York. (Adee Braun)

In the mid-20th century, New York planner Robert Moses wanted to put a ten lane freeway here in Lower Manhattan. Back then, it was a fading industrial area.

“This would have created essentially a giant Berlin Wall cutting off what became SoHo from what became TriBeCa. And, these two are now essentially connected in what is a huge swath of hugely desirable real estate,” he said.

And, planners like Bob Brown in Cleveland see freeway removal as a way to make cities more attractive and desirable to companies and workers who can locate anywhere.

“ When you talk about improving the quality of life in neighborhoods and a city that translates directly into increases in population and jobs,” Brown said.

In cities that have already taken down freeways, property values often rise and waterfronts draw more people. Skeptics find traffic jams rarely materialize.

So, is this a repudiation of those Mid-Century builders who saw cars as supreme?

Jeff Chusid, a city and regional planning professor at Cornell, says in some ways it is.

“In other ways, it’s a repudiation of the mentality of the city as a machine,” he said.

Chusid says cities are changing. They’re no longer industrial places that need freeways to speed workers and goods in and out. Instead, planners are now focused on sustainability and making cities attractive places for both work and play.

To be clear, few are suggesting we remove heavily traveled roads, but even the US Department of Transportation is backing the idea of replacing under-used urban freeways.

In Cleveland, many are warming to the West Shoreway becoming a boulevard. Don Burrows of Westlake was walking around a Cleveland neighborhood that should benefit from the project.

“I like the idea. I think it will make the lake much more accessible to the population. I think it will the neighborhoods more livable,” Burrows said.

And, for Judie Vegh, the commuter, a Cleveland official says the Shoreway’s slower speed limit will only add 75 seconds to her commute.

The last international ship of the year just left the Great Lakes. The Dutch vessel dropped off Swedish steel in Cleveland and picked up grain in Duluth.

Many say increasing exports would help get the region and the country out of the recession.
Well, the Midwest still makes things. If we’re going to be an export economy, how do we get the goods out of the country?

Could we be doing a lot more international trade directly through the Great Lakes?

LISTEN TO THE STORY: Download audio file (ShipFINAL_web.mp3)

It is not easy to get steel mill equipment from Ohio to Germany.

Bullnose gear shipping
Butech Bliss readying large equipment for shipment to Germany. Courtesy Butech Bliss

Especially when it’s the largest piece of machinery a company has ever made. Earlier this year, a manufacturer near Youngstown called Butech Bliss beat out foreign firms to supply a German mill with enormous steel cutters. It took a truck with 19 axles.

Super truck in salem
Courtesy Butech Bliss

“Actually, the shear itself ended up weighing about a million and a half pounds,” said Chuck Jackson, Butech Bliss’s Vice President. It was a $15 million order — half the company’s annual revenue. That was the good news. The bad news? Pennsylvania and Maryland wouldn’t let him truck it on their highways to the port in Baltimore. The trucks were simply too big.

He racked his brain for a solution.

Chuck Jackson

“I had heard faintly of people shipping out of Cleveland,” Jackson said. “But I never really thought about it.”

That ended up being his answer. He shipped the machinery out the St Lawrence Seaway and across the Atlantic to Germany.

695 on ship small
Butech Bliss’s equipment being loaded onto ship in Cleveland. Courtesy Butech Bliss.

But for now, this is still not that common.

“It’s a chicken and egg problem,” said Brad Hull, a professor at John Carroll University.

He says there are Midwest companies that want to use the lakes and there are shipowners that want to serve them. But the shippers want to make sure the service is dependable and the ship-owners want to be certain there’s demand.

“So, essentially you’ve got both sides that need to meet in the middle,” he said.

For now, much of the shipping is based on luck. There’s no predictable service. This year, a drought in Russia has boosted the grain exports from Duluth, for instance.

Will Friedman is the new head of the Port of Cleveland.

“We’re not in control of our own destiny,” said Will Friedman, the new head of the Port of Cleveland. “Sometimes good things happen but it’s not because we did anything.”

Friedman hopes we’ll soon see small steps to changing that. There’s serious talk of starting a regular, predictable container service for the first time in decades.

For now, most ships like this one in Cleveland just have their cargo secured to the deck.

The last ship of the year in Cleveland. Workers unload steel from its deck. Photo by Dan Bobkoff

Cleveland and Detroit’s ports generate upwards of $2 billion in economic impact a year but that’s well less than Baltimore.

“We just want to be who we are better than we have been previously,” Friedman said.

Cleveland and Detroit’s ports generate upwards of $2 billion in economic impact a year but that’s well less than Baltimore.

John Baker says more activity on the lakes can’t come soon enough. He’s with the International Longshoreman’s Association and has spent decades trying to get more foreign business so his members can get more work.


John Baker

“It’s not enough! It’s never going to be enough until we see it. I keep saying it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen, but I don’t see it, and I don’t see anyone pushing as hard as we are,” Baker said.

Baker thinks the ports need to do a better job marketing. They need to tell potential customers that ice is only a problem for two or three months, and that it can be easier and cheaper to get to parts of Europe through the Seaway than coastal ports like New York and Baltimore.

That’s what Butech Bliss learned getting its steel cutters to Germany. Chuck Jackson is thinking of using the port again.

“We worried and worried and worried about being late,” he said. “Everything went our way and we actually ended up getting there two weeks early.”
It’s like an ad for the Port of Cleveland.

Volunteers at the Chicago Food Depository sorting donations. The organization says that 1 in 8 Cook County residents will use a soup kitchen or food pantry. Image Courtesy of Chicago Food Depository.

As the year comes to a close, there are indications the economy is improving. Retail sales are up, and unemployment rates are dropping. You can look at jobless rates as a statistic – or you can see it in real life terms. Changing Gears is a public media project looking at the reinvention of the Midwest. At food banks across the Midwest, though, we’re seeing that reality is getting in the way of that reinvention.

Download audio file (Food_Banks_web.mp3)

CHICAGO – The line outside All Saint’s Episcopal Church in Ravenswood on Chicago’s North Side wraps around the corner and down the block. It’s Tuesday evening, and dozens are here for the church’s weekly soup kitchen and food pantry.

The line’s full of people you might expect to see at a pantry: grandparents with young kids in tow; a few homeless people. But the line also has quite a few people like Joanne Baier.

“I was actually a teller supervisor at a bank,” Baier said. She worked for Bank of America for seven years before they downsized, and she lost her job.

Since then, she said life has been “hard’.

Fran Holliday sees hard stories like Baier’s even more these days.

“We’re still meeting a lot of neighbors who do not have work, cannot find work, or have just lost their jobs,” said Holliday, the associate rector at the church and the program director for Ravenswood Community Services, the church’s social services arm

Talk to the people who direct food banks across the Midwest – and they say the relationship between unemployment and hunger has become even more pronounced in the past few years.

In Chicago, one out of every eight residents of Cook County now visits a soup kitchen or pantry for food. That’s almost 700,000 people.

“In the last two years our distribution has increased 50 percent,” said Anne Goodman, Executive Director of the Cleveland Food Bank. “There’s simply no way that you can interpret it in any other fashion but to say that unemployment has related directly to food distribution.”

In Detroit, Goodman’s counterpart, DeWayne Wells, said his organization, Gleaners Community Food Bank of Southeast Michigan, has experienced a 20 percent increase in need for services this year. There’s even more demand outside the city of Detroit.

“In some of suburbs, a lot of people who were displaced by autos and whose unemployment has run out, we’re seeing much higher than those 20 percent average communities in those communities,” said Wells.

He calls them the “new poor”.

In Chicago, one out of every eight residents of Cook County now visits a soup kitchen or pantry for food. That’s almost 700,000 people.

The warehouse on Chicago's South Side is the size of five football fields. Image Courtesy of Chicago Food Depository.

Most of it comes from the Chicago Food Depository on the city’s South Side. Its main warehouse is the size of five football fields. It’s full almost to the ceiling with pallets of food – boxes of cereal, crates of mayonnaise, and cartons of fresh fruits and vegetables like bananas and potatoes. Lots of fresh meat, fruit and vegetables are an important part of the food that gets sent out to pantries.

Inside, workers are busy making sure all the orders are correct.

The Chicago area has also seen about a 36 percent increase in need for services over the past three years. The trend among especially new customers is people who have never used any type of social service before.

“People call and say, ‘I know you because I used to make a donation to you. I’m calling today not to make a donation but to ask for help. I need to go to a food pantry and I don’t know where one is’,” said Kate Maehr, the Food Depository’s director.

Maehr said the nonprofit is bracing itself for a new reality of having to deal with the tens of thousands of people in the community who are not going to get jobs quickly.

The holiday dinner at the weekly soup kitchen of All Saint's Episcopal Church on Chicago's North Side.

Inside All Saints, they’re getting ready to serve Christmas dinner to food pantry recipients.

Joanne Baier – the bank teller from Ravenswood is outside. She usually just gets a bag of food and leaves, rather than stay for the meal. Baier has been out of work for two years. A year ago, she finally turned to the food pantry for help.

This Christmas is harder financially than last year for Baier and her husband. He used to have a full-time job, but now can only get part-time work at Target.

The couple is especially grateful for food pantry.

“I think it helps out a lot, so we could pay our bills and our rent,” said Baier.

Baier said she remains optimistic that she will eventually find a job. And, she’s hoping she’ll get the chance to reinvent herself in the New Year.