If the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority
has any say in the matter, a river will run through Cleveland's viability as a hub for economic growth.
While the port has no direct involvement in the city's big future plans, which include the Flats East Bank development, a medical mart/convention center and a new downtown casino, the independently run government agency is steaming full speed ahead as a behind-the-scenes money-generating battleship, attracting new business to the port and ensuring that shipping channels remain open.
"The riverfront and lakefront are systems we look at holistically," says port president and CEO William Friedman, a maritime and development veteran from Indiana who came to Cleveland in 2010 following leadership positions with the Ports of Indiana and the Port of Seattle.
The very definition of "holistic," where the parts of something are intimately interconnected to the whole, plays into the port's long-term strategic action plan drafted in September, Friedman says. The proposal's emphasis on infrastructure improvements designed to clean up the Cuyahoga River and bring business to the port may not be as sexy as, say, the bright lights of a casino, but it's a necessary cog in long-discussed community ambitions of waterfront renewal.
"The port's job is to tackle the nuts and bolts of these larger projects," says Friedman, looking out at the port's snow-dusted docks from his 23rd-floor office on E. 9th Street. "We can drive a significant piece of the overall agenda." Through the movement of cargo in and out of the port, maritime activities support 11,000 manufacturing jobs, $570 million in personal incomes, $882 million in business revenues, and $200 million in local, state and federal taxes.
Highlights of the port's proposal include:
- Repairing the crumbling hillside along the Irishtown Bend section of the river, which has led to the collapse of a major chunk of Riverbed Road and could cause further problems if the deteriorating hill slides into the water.
- Construction and implementation of work boats that will be used to clean the river and outer harbor of tree limbs and other debris.
- Fixing and replacing miles worth of aging riverfront bulkheads.
- Finding beneficial, cost-effective uses for the tons of sediment dredged out of the river every year, currently being stored in lakefront disposal facilities that are steadily running out of room. One possibility is recycling the sediment as landfill, a course of action that would fulfill Ohio Environmental Protection Agency standards.
Of these plans, the work boats are the closest to becoming reality, with the river clean-up operation likely dropping anchor in the summer, says Friedman.
This will be "an R & D year" for the bulkheading project, when the port will inventory the damages and determine the cost of repairing them. The agency also has some "rough numbers" on the potentially expensive sediment and Irishtown Bend proposals, which could be paid for through a combination of federal and local funding, as well as a maritime levy of .13 mills that brings tax revenues of about $3.2 million per year to the port authority over a five-year period. The last levy passed in 2008.
The port's far-reaching action plan also calls for a Cleveland-Montreal container service and a cross-lake ferry focused on passenger travel between Cleveland and Port Stanley, Ontario. In addition, the port pledges to maintain public access to the Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve, an 88-acre landfill at Gordon Park. There are also plans to build a $3.9 million on-dock rail loop that supporters believe will drive future port growth.
The action plan has been refined, reviewed by the public and approved by the port’s nine-member board. Large pieces of the proposal are now undergoing review in city council.
"Our goal is to maximize the potential of the river," says Friedman. Maritime commerce and the companies that depend on those vessels are part of a larger network, one that has the potential to spur exciting new investments. "It all touches the water."
The mayor's office is committed to a vibrant downtown waterfront that blends uses and assets similar to what once worked in the Flats, says the port director. City Councilman Joe Cimperman, who represents much of downtown and the Flats, has been a particular champion of the port's waterfront-friendly cause.
The Friedman proposal is a significant shift from that of the previous administration. Former port director Adam Wasserman's plan called for movement of the city’s port from the downtown lakefront to a proposed new landfill at E. 55th Street, a move that would have given the agency twice the land it has now. The high-priced strategy was ditched in favor of turning over land behind Cleveland Browns Stadium to the city for mixed-used development and a ferry dock.
All of these plans are reflective of the port's continued stewardship of the critical asset that is the riverfront, says Friedman. The director has undertaken public speaking engagements to bring this message across to Clevelanders. The port also is re-designing its website so people can better understand its role in the community.
For now, "we are a quiet force" behind all the headline-grabbing development plans on Cleveland's horizon, Friedman says. He envisions a glimmering waterfront harnessing the energy of both river and lake, with cargo moving merrily through a busy port surrounded by a thriving marina and sparkling new developments and businesses.
Cleveland began its existence at the mouth of the Cuyahoga River over 200 years ago. It's fitting that a new era of economic expansion could kick off from that enduring if underused waterway.
"We're a key partner in that effort," says Friedman. "We'll continue to be the foundation builders."
Photos Bob Perkoski
- Images 1 & 2: Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority president William Friedman
- Image 3: Riverbed Road
- Image 4: Irishtown Bend
- Images 5 - 7: Cleveland Lakefront Nature Preserve