A Respite for East Cleveland: Joe Frolik

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A Respite for East Cleveland: Joe Frolik

October 18, 2011 [Joe Frolik, The Plain Dealer]

We often hear that “elections have consequences.” Far too often in this era of hyper partisanship, its meaning boils down to: I won. You lost. I get my way.

Meeting with congressional leaders in January 2009, newly inaugurated President Barack Obama told Republicans that he would consider their ideas for a stimulus bill, but cautioned them not to get their hopes up because “elections have consequences.” Needless to say, GOP lawmakers made the same point repeatedly after last November.

This year, wherever a baldly gerrymandered reapportionment map has popped up — be it in Illinois, where Democrats controlled the process and drew a map to put six GOP congressional seats in danger, or Ohio, where Republicans rule and produced a plan designed to feather their nests — some defender of the odd-shaped outcomes inevitably will point out that “elections have consequences.” It is, in this context, an updated version of Sen. William Marcy’s 1832 defense of patronage: “To the victor belong the spoils.”

But sometimes elections have consequences in the best sense — by ushering in change that truly benefits a community rather than an individual, a political faction or an interest group.

Just look at East Cleveland.

For three decades, the once-prosperous suburb has been a poster child for every symptom of urban decline: White flight. Middle-class flight. Disinvestment. Abandonment. Political corruption. Fiscal emergency.

If it could go wrong, it probably did in East Cleveland.

Enter Gary Norton Jr., who was elected mayor two years ago. He took over a city that had lost 39 percent of its population in a decade. It’s now home to fewer than 17,000 people.

One of Norton’s recent predecessors went to federal prison for taking bribes. Another admitted that she had killed a man — in self-defense, she said. Eric Brewer, the one-term incumbent Norton unseated, was a very bright guy who said many of the right things about how to transform East Cleveland. But Brewer was too suspicious of any potential partner — too much of a grievance collector — to make them happen.

Norton, 39, figured his city had two great assets. The first was proximity to University Circle, the cultural, educational and medical cluster that is Greater Cleveland’s most robust jobs generator. The second was something those institutions desperately needed — land. The upside of abandonment, if you will, is that East Cleveland potentially had plenty of space available. And now it also had a third asset: A mayor ready to deal.

Norton worked with the new Cuyahoga County land bank to acquire and clear land, first in the southwest corner of East Cleveland, right across the line from Cleveland and University Circle, and then farther up Euclid Avenue and its HealthLine. He lobbied for federal funds to speed the  demolition. He talked regularly to officials at University Circle Inc. and welcomed any potential developer or investor.

“Government doesn’t create jobs,” Norton says. “But we can create the environment for others to create jobs.”

The first deal Norton discussed with developer Wes Finch didn’t materialize. But once he had Finch’s ear, the relentless Norton offered up another possibility — an idea for townhouses on a parking lot in East Cleveland owned by UCI.

The idea had been kicking around for years, and Finch was interested. So, eventually, were UCI, the county, the land bank and PNC Bank. Last Thursday, Norton, Finch and their partners broke ground on the first phase of Circle East, the first new residential development in East Cleveland in a generation.

“Gary’s a great salesman for his city,” says UCI’s Chris Ronayne. “He showed nothing but enthusiasm for this project. He had a bring-it-on mentality.”

As nice as these early victories might be — and Norton also deserves credit for wringing $20 million out of the Cleveland Clinic after its decision to close Huron Hospital — the mayor knows he can’t rest on his laurels. His city remains desperately poor, and more budget cuts loom. Politics in East Cleveland is still a blood sport. But the fact that residents turned out to cheer a recent spate of demolitions suggests that Norton’s vision might be taking hold.

“In East Cleveland, it’s hard to get people to believe,” the mayor says. “So my goal for the first term is to get people to believe — to take an honest second look at East Cleveland.”

Those who do might also realize that it’s true: Elections have consequences.