q & a: william friedman, president & ceo cleveland-cuyahoga county port authority

The Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority is asking voters to vote "Yes" on Issue 108, a levy that would generate approximately $90 million over five years and cost property owners roughly $20 annually per $100,000 of assessed value.
That levy, says the port, would fund critical infrastructure improvements in and along the Cuyahoga River and Lake Erie that would greatly improve connectivity while opening the areas to increased economic development and recreational use.

Fresh Water editor Douglas Trattner discussed these issues and more with Port President and CEO William Friedman, a maritime and development veteran who came to Cleveland in 2010 following leadership positions with the Ports of Indiana and the Port of Seattle.

What is it about Port work that keeps you engaged?

It’s really a great space to work in. We get to straddle public policy and government and the world of business and commerce. Here in Cleveland, we get involved in projects that really have a beneficial impact on the community and that’s what really gets me charged up.

What are some of the primary functions of the Port Authority here in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County?

Our core business is to develop, maintain and operate marine terminals, which function much like an airport, where you have carriers that are moving freight. We provide the interface between the land and the water modes of transportation.

The local maritime economy, while perhaps unfamiliar to many, is really big business.

It is a big business -- it is 18,000 jobs and a billion dollars in payroll -- and we want to continue to do what we do historically. But we have the capacity to handle more and different kinds of cargo. The bulk of the commodities that are moved through our harbor are the raw materials for steel making, construction, energy… We would like to move up the food chain and handle more containers and more finished goods.

How are the port’s day-to day activities presently funded?

The majority of our operating funds come from our operating revenues, from the maritime side, and we also earn fees from our bond issuances. We do use some [current] tax levy dollars for operating needs, but we are much closer to a cash basis, covering all our expenses from our operating revenue. We want to free up the levy money for the kind of infrastructure investments that nobody is paying for.
And you’re currently operating on an existing levy?

We are. We’re on a 5-year cycle; every 5 years we go back to the voters with a levy. Next year would be our last year of collection on the current cycle.

The "Strategic Action Plan" that was introduced in 2011 represents a new direction for the Port, does it not?

The pivot that we proposed was that the Port Authority is the best-suited local public entity to be the steward of the Cuyahoga river channel. And to take the lead in raising the funds necessary to make the investments to keep it functional and, at the same time, to open up and better connect our waterfronts for everyone to use and enjoy in order to be a catalyst for new development.

From where has the money for that type of work come historically?

There is a somewhat fragmented set of mostly public agencies that oversee it, so it’s a recipe for inaction in some sense. This is not an exercise in allocating blame; this is simply recognizing that we have a very important resource, but nobody is looking out for the totality of this system.

So why is now the right time for another levy, especially considering there is a big school levy on the ballot as well?

We are a county-wide agency, so there are always other levies on the ballot. We conferred with the mayor and the county execs before moving forward, and both understand that these are in fact complimentary, because as we educate people better we need to have an infrastructure that is going to continue to support the jobs that people are going to need to have.

Also, there will be important federal water resource legislation reauthorized next year more than likely. If we don’t have a source of funding locally, we are more than likely not going to be successful in pulling down federal money from the Water Resources Development Act.

Isn’t there also a sense that there is so much positive movement in Cleveland right now that it’s better to have a head start?

Yes, we can’t squander the momentum we have now. We have designed these improvements in a way that would leave behind public access, green space, open space, trailways, and connectivity -- the amenities that are going to attract people to live in our city and make investments in our city. Historically, Cleveland has not been one of those cities that looked at its waterfront as an amenity; we looked at it as a resource for industry. I think this is the time for Cleveland to really catch up with other cities that have turned their waterfronts into the most important public places in their community. 

In addition to shoring up Irishtown Bend and dealing with river sediment issues, how else does the port intend to use the money?

One pedestrian bridge would connect a major, multimodal connection point, by the convention center and Public Square and all the downtown attractions, to the lakefront. On the west side, we'd improve connectivity to Whiskey Island, where you have Wendy Park, and Edgewater Park, two major parks that are relatively hard to get to because they are cut off by railroad tracks and the highway. These are really important connections which go a long way toward getting people down to the waterfront from points today where it’s difficult.

If this levy passes, how likely are these improvements to occur?

I think very likely to almost certain on dredge material management. The other projects are a little more contingent on leveraging federal and state dollars. We’ve been clear that we don’t intend to cover 100 percent of these costs, but we are very confident that with a local funding source we will be successful in attracting outside money and that we will get these projects completed.

And how will those improvements spur future river- and lake-front development.

Economists will tell you that for every dollar spent on public infrastructure, there is an investment multiplier. More specifically, if we can open up Franklin Hill, which is 30 acres, we can turn an eyesore into an amenity. If we can create a trail system which would allow you to go from the West Side Market to Wendy Park. If we can connect the mall complex down to the lakefront. I think there’s a straight line from these sorts of investments to decision-making on the part of people in terms of where do I want to locate my company and where do I want to live personally.

Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Douglas Trattner.

Douglas Trattner is a fulltime freelance writer, editor and author. In addition to acting as Managing Editor of Fresh Water, he is the Dining Editor of Cleveland Scene, author of “Moon Handbooks: Cleveland,” and co-author with Michael Symon on two New York Times best-selling cookbooks. His work has appeared in Food Network magazine, Miami Herald, Globe and Mail, Wine & Spirits, Cleveland Magazine and others. He lives in Cleveland Hts. with his wife, two dogs, five chickens and 20,000 honeybees.
Signup for Email Alerts