report checks cleveland's economic vital signs: shows where city is, where it can be

There is no single path to urban success in the 21st century. Every metropolitan area faces its own unique set of challenges that make the road to economic utopia branch off in a myriad of different directions. However, a new report carrying a Cleveland connection can act as a guide making the trip a little bit easier, say its proponents.
City Vitals 2.0, a benchmarking report on 50 cities across the country released by CEOs for Cities, looks at the nation's largest metropolitan areas through the lens of some two dozen indicators, including college attainment, entrepreneurship and a young, educated populace.  The detailed set of statistical measures aims to help urban leaders understand their city's performance in four key areas: talent, innovation, connections and distinctiveness.
Cleveland, specifically the Cleveland-Elyria-Mentor region as presented in the study, struggled in some key points. The area ranked 49th in per capita income at $15,540 (the New York region placed first at $72,953) and came out "on top" in the study's poverty figures, with over 42 percent of the area's urban core population living under the poverty line, although metro poverty is only slightly higher than the U.S. average of 14.6 percent.

The Cleveland area also finished in the lower percentile in categories like "creative professionals," measured by the percentage of workers employed in such skilled trades as architecture and engineering. The only ranking that found the region in the top 10 was overall participation in the 2008 presidential election.
The forecast seems gloomy and these numbers don't exactly divulge anything people didn't already know, but Lee Fisher (yes, that Lee Fisher) believes there's something to be learned just the same. The former lieutenant governor is now head of CEOs for Cities, working out of the organization's Cleveland office.

Fisher knows it's easy to get caught up in rankings and dry figures, but City Vitals is not meant to be a competition pitting one city against another. The point of all these measures and indicators, he says, is to act as "a benchmarking tool to help cities better understand how their performance compares to other cities. It's a guide to frame ongoing initiatives." 

With U.S. economic activity concentrated in large metropolitan regions, the nation's big cities are increasingly being recognized as engines of the national economy, Fisher says. The study doesn't showcase a clear-cut "winner," although CEOs for Cities revealed a handful of metros, including San Francisco, New York and Chicago, at or near the top across multiple measures.

Cleveland has a role to play, too, and while it's pointless to compare Northeast Ohio with a city like Chicago, the data provided by the report gives local leaders a means to candidly assess the region's strengths and weaknesses, says Fisher.

The CEOs for Cities head views Cleveland's performance in a larger context of what he feels is a promising future. "I'm in a different city every week," he says. "The more I travel, the more convinced I am that Cleveland's doing great things in terms of cutting-edge work."

While Cleveland certainly can do better in some areas, the city is improving in the four categories that matter most to urban success in the modern age, notes Fisher: connections, innovation, talent and distinctiveness.

There's the Health Tech Corridor connecting the area's world-class hospitals with top educational institutions. There's the RTA Healthline zipping workers between University Circle and downtown. There's the entrepreneurial focus emerging from organizations like JumpStart and NorTech.   

"It's about anchoring institutions to create hubs of innovation and opportunity," Fisher says.

Brad Whitehead, president of Fund For Our Economic Future, has read the report and says his organization has been tracking similar economic and social metrics over the last decade.

"[City Vitals 2.0] is a powerful reminder of the things we have to work on," says Whitehead. "We have made progress in some areas, but there are too many people who haven't benefitted from those efforts."

Northeast Ohio has done well as of late to start and staff new businesses, says Whitehead. Meanwhile, groups like the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET) are helping manufacturers transition into new, fast-growth markets. Still, Cleveland's glaring urban core poverty figures reveal the necessity of accelerating and widening economic planning strategies.

"There needs to be access to opportunities for all," Whitehead says. "Take the labor force participation rate in hard hit economic areas. Are our workforce programs reaching those people? A sound, sustainable economic program must include both growth and opportunity."

There are many ways to improve Northeast Ohio. Perhaps the single most important benchmark for any region on the rise is the education level of its population, says City Vitals author Joe Cortright, an economist living in Portland.

Cleveland ranks 32nd in the percentage of its population age 25 and over that have completed a four-year college degree. At 33 percent, the region is behind Columbus (38 percent) and other similarly sized cities in the parchment department. That's not to imply only folks with a college degree are talented, says Cortright, but skilled workers who have completed higher levels of education represent the most significant post-recession job growth in the U.S.

"It's the low-skilled jobs that are getting outsourced," Cortright says. "That [trend] shows no signs of abating."

Educating, attracting and retaining talent is a must in the new economy, says Fisher. City Vitals may not be the ideal way to understand metropolitan success and vivacity, but Fisher hopes it can serve to better define the discussion of what it takes to make it in a connected, multi-faceted business universe.

"We must use these indicators as data points, not judgments," he says. "They show where Cleveland is, and where it can be."

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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