Rust Belt Reboot Has Downtown Cleveland Rocking
Almost 11 years ago, Phil Alexander opened his company, BrandMuscle, in the affluent Cleveland suburb of Beachwood.
We can leave our apartment and walk five feet to a restaurant to get something to eat or to go shopping.
The company sells marketing software to corporate clients worldwide, and its offices have a lean, energetic vibe, with 20-somethings tossing around ideas in multiscreened meeting rooms or a comfortable coffee bar.
The place is young. It's hip. And it's leaving town. A few years ago, you might've chalked that up as another economic blow to northeastern Ohio. But BrandMuscle isn't moving to a major metro area like Chicago, New York or Los Angeles, but instead about 20 miles away — to downtown Cleveland.
"Downtown has a new energy, a new vitality; things that we really didn't see a few years ago," Alexander says.
It sure doesn't sound like the place that was long the butt of jokes by late-night comics, and there are similar stories coming out of Detroit, St. Louis and Buffalo. Blue-collar towns seem to be attracting a new generation of residents looking for an affordable urban lifestyle.
One of the wake-up calls for Alexander came when two of his employees asked him if he knew anyone in downtown Cleveland because they were on a waiting list for an apartment.
"We were actually on a waiting list for four months before we got in," says Veronica Tarasco, who now shares one of the hippest addresses in the city – East 4th Street – with co-worker Kristen Babjack.
On most nights, that part of downtown is bustling with restaurants and live music.
"We can leave our apartment and walk five feet to a restaurant to get something to eat or to go shopping," Babjack says.
A brand-new casino, just a couple blocks away, has brought even more people into the neighborhood. And Tarasco, who used to live on the East Coast, says there are plenty of other entertainment options.
"We have all of our arenas and sporting areas and concerts all in one pretty-much walkable area," she says. "If you go to a Giants game out in New York, if you're going to the game, you're going to the game. You're not going to tailgate and then get on the train and go back into the city."
An Evolving Downtown
Ari Maron is a partner in MRN Ltd. a family-owned real estate development, construction and management company. His father first started developing properties on East 4th Street 20 years ago. Back then, he says, it was better known for its wig shops, drug deals and prostitutes.
The Maron family bought up much of the old, empty office space above the street and converted it to apartments. He says local developers are having a tough time keeping up with the demand.
"The apartments are all filled [and] there's new apartments being built every day," Maron says. "I think what we're really doing is riding the wave of a national trend of people rediscovering cities."
Richey Piiparinen, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, has been tracking that trend in northeastern Ohio and nearby states.
"A lot of young people in Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh whose parents grew up in the inner city, and whose parents left during the white flight movement — they have this attraction to the roots that they never knew," Piiparinen says.
Jim Russell writes an economic development blog about Rust Belt refugees who are looking to come home. He confirms that downtown Cleveland is booming. He says recent Census migration data for the area has been positive to the tune of 400 to 500 new residents.
"That's a pretty significant chunk of people, who tend to be young and college-educated," Russell says. "That's a win."
Piiparinen warns, however, that it may be just one win in a much larger battle for repopulation.
"This is a very complex problem, but getting an inflow of talent into a city is one way to tackle that," he says.
Piiparinen says young people like Veronica Tarasco are a blank slate, not burdened with memories of all the old Cleveland jokes.
"My friends on the East Coast, they call names to Ohio and Cleveland and stuff, but I think it's just a bad rep that we get," she says.
For Cleveland and some other hard-hit Midwestern cities, that "rep" is starting to change.
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