Revealing Plans for the Convention Center

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Cleveland City Planning Director Chris Ronayne decided to walk to this week's meeting at the Cleveland Public Library. It's not too far from his office at city hall. He passed by trucks lined up along the current convention center site and was quickly reminded that the circus was in town this week.

Chris Ronayne: You literally walked by these trucks that were basically out in the street and you could smell the circus animals that were out in the street.

And that reminded him that a new convention center might not be such a bad idea...

Chris Ronayne: It relayed to me that we do not have a facility for 21st century use that is competitive. You start with truck docks but you also talk about you know things like the interior space, the column width.

But Ronayne isn't ready to make a commitment to building a new facility - at least, not yet. He says now that the process is including public feedback, the work is just beginning.

Chris Ronayne: I mean, the mayor came in in 2002, she heard some interest in this issue, she commissioned a group to go back and study the issues and come up with really, what are the requisites and the criterion for building one of these things and as we look forward, we're going to hold hands with the public every step of the way on this.

The interest in building a new convention center was primarily spurred by two influential northeast Ohio business groups: Cleveland Tomorrow and the Greater Cleveland Growth Association. The two groups gave a preliminary site analysis of proposed convention center sites to Mayor Jane Campbell last week. There are five sites on the table: the current location on Lakeside Avenue, on the lakefront next to Browns Stadium, a piece of land off the inner-belt by Jacob's Field, a spot near the Warehouse District and Public Square, and the most recent addition to the list, space around the Galleria. The business leaders presented their report to about a hundred residents at this week's first public meeting about the convention center proposal. David Nolan, among others, took to the mic to make a case for building a new facility. Nolan is head of the Convention and Visitor's Bureau.

David Nolan: We have the transportation, we have the tourism components, we have the entertainment components and we have natural resources. Combine all that with the wonderful way we do things in taking care of the customer in Greater Cleveland, we are going to rock. The rest of the competition I think is going to be pale to our potential, that's why we're advocating moving on this and moving on it quickly.

After the meeting, residents like Tom Pepin weren't convinced. As Pepin puts it, he lives, works, and plays downtown. He says he wants to know how proposed sites for a convention center fit into the bigger picture for economic development in the region.

Tom Pepin: Do we want to be a technology capital, do we want to be an industrial manufacturing capital, do we want to be a higher education capital or arts and science capital, those types of things. And once we define that we can decide what kind of conventions we want to have in here. If we have the Nari Home Improvement Show, fur sale, model train show, those types of things aren't really going to define who Cleveland is, maybe bring some people downtown but it's not really going to help with our overall strategy.

City Planning Director Chris Ronayne understands Pepin's concerns. He says there are a lot of questions that still need to be answered, beyond where a new convention center should be built and how it would be paid for - which by the way, business leaders were unable to answer this week.

Chris Ronayne: If we have a few shots at economic advancement in this community what should we deliver along with a convention center? I mean, is there neighborhood development money that ought to be associated, suburban development money that ought to be associated with it, what's the impact of arts and culture? Is there some way for that to be included?

Ronayne says ideally, a comprehensive community development investment fund would be established that could help advance northeast Ohio in decades to come.

But he says that kind of talk is still premature. This Tuesday and Wednesday residents have an opportunity to see the five site proposals firsthand. After next week's community forums, the planning Commission and the Cuyahoga County Mayors and Managers Association will continue to take public comments by way of e-mail and phone calls. Business leaders are expected to present Mayor Campbell with a recommendation of two or three sites in early April. And from there?

Chris Ronayne: The final recommendation though will come from the constituencies in Cuyahoga County that are citizens of this county, whether it's a vote or if we don't get there, to a public vote, by way of these community forums.

Depending on the site the cost of a new convention center could range anywhere from $300 million to $600 million. No one has said where that money will come from although county voters will more than likely see a tax proposal on the November ballot. In order for that to happen, a final plan including site and proposed cost would have to be in place by August. In Cleveland, Renita Jablonski, 90.3.

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