LeBron James brought home the hardware. The Indians had a hot first half. And Cleveland residents say there’s a new energy to the city.
On the heels of their first major professional sports championship in 52 years, Cleveland takes another major turn on the national stage next week. For a city that’s struggled to gain economic footing in recent decades, young business owners are part of crafting a comeback they hope lasts beyond the Republican National Convention.
Eight years ago, Mike Kubinski sketched five Cleveland-centric T-shirt designs and started selling the shirts on MySpace. It was the height of the Great Recession, and Ohio felt it hard.
“2008, not a good time to start a business. They weren’t handing out business loans, so we literally built this one T-shirt at a time,” he said, now seated in his downtown Cleveland store among dozens of designs on coasters, beer glasses, hats and T-shirts (including one that reads “Support Your Friendly Local Cleveland T-Shirt Shop.”) But, he added, “2008, it just felt right. There were a lot of cool things going on in Cleveland and it was just starting. The renaissance was going. And there was this cool vibe going on.”
“Renaissance” is a word you hear a lot in Cleveland, especially as the city welcomes 50,000 visitors for this year’s RNC. Delegates and journalists understand why the perennial battleground state of Ohio won the convention, and with it, hundreds of millions of dollars in spending. But given the city’s reputation, many still ask: “Why Cleveland?”
“One thing we know is that we’ve battled perception problems in our community for decades,” said Cleveland Host Committee CEO David Gilbert. “What we found now is that those really are not relevant anymore, but the research has shown that the perception of Cleveland for people who have never visited is significantly lower than those who have come here.”
Gilbert pointed to new city infrastructure designed to attract visitors, like a new convention center and an increase in downtown hotel room capacity. “The community has changed dramatically over the last three or four years,” he said. “And quite frankly there’s a lot of change in the composition of Cleveland. Becoming younger, becoming more educated. Really a change in community mindset. Really a change in community self-confidence.”
Kubinski said he’s noticed the positive trends in his own social circles. “I have a lot friends that are coming back from Chicago who graduated college, moved to Chicago, but now are settling down, having families and they want to have a nice place to live and they’re moving back, finding jobs here, which is an awesome thing.”
One of Kubinski’s two brick-and-mortar stores sits at the end of an alley of restaurants and bars at East Fourth Street in downtown Cleveland. It’s within sight of Quicken Loans Arena — where the Cavaliers play, and where RNC action will take place. This particular collection of downtown eateries may seem small in comparison to offerings in cities like New York, Chicago, and even Democratic convention host Philadelphia. But after hemorrhaging residents for decades — from more than 573,000 in 1980 to just over 388,000 in July 2015 — to Cleveland, it looks like reversal.
Theresa Gorski is one of those residents who returned to Cleveland — in 2009, after time abroad. Her yoga and wellness studio sits high in a townhouse in the Ohio City neighborhood, where new restaurants and local brewers have filled up space.
Her studio was eager to welcome convention guests, and reached out to hotel concierges and the local merchants association early. “We’re going to be rerouting our classes to another location up the road, but then we’re going to be opening up our doors to those that are coming for work during the RNC,” she said. “We’re adding classes that are just for those that are visiting Cleveland. We’ll have one in the morning, one in the evening. We’ll open up massage therapy hours that are specific for people that are visiting.”
Gorski’s Ohio City studio is set across the Cuyahoga River from the downtown area where the heart of convention activity, both official events and protests, will take place. She said she hopes events remain positive, to leave visitors with a positive impression of the city. “I want them to know that Cleveland has reawoken,” she said. “We are now part of a bigger picture and we have a lot to say and offer and show the world.”
Kubinski’s business will be much closer to the action, and he said he’s been part of multiple meetings in the runup to prepare as best as possible for security restrictions and potential protests. “We really don’t know what to expect so we’re just playing it by ear.”
For convention planners, city officials and businesses, there’s much riding on success — and safety — during convention week.
“One of the most important parts of our wanting to host the convention — probably the most important part — had to do with the future,” Gilbert said. “For us the economic impact of the convention itself during that week and leading up, while it’s hundreds of millions of dollars, it’s certainly not the headliner in terms of why we want to host the convention.
“It was so you’d have these influencers from all over the world — the media, the public officials, the major business leaders — that would come here, and it was about their perceptions changing of Cleveland.”
Kubinski would like visitors to take home a T-shirt or two, especially those designed specifically for the RNC. One shows the Cleveland skyline. Another notes the swing state’s history and reads, “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.” But he’d also like them to leave with a different mindset than when they landed.
“They might be coming here like, ‘Oh, I have to go to Cleveland for this convention.’ We want them to be like, ‘Wow, I just went to Cleveland and that was awesome and I want to come back.’ “