Downtown Cleveland Alliance celebrates signs of progress after a challenging year

There is little doubt that most of us are glad to have 2020 in the rearview mirror and we are looking forward to a more positive 2021. The struggles to keep Cleveland thriving during the pandemic presented their own hurdles, though, and the Downtown Cleveland Alliance (DCA) says in its 2020 Annual Report, released on Thursday, March 11, that our fair city enters 2021 relatively unscathed by the hits of 2020—and the organization is predicting growth in the year ahead.

“It’s really a look back at what, in many ways, was a challenging year,” says Michael Deemer, DCA’s executive vice president of business development. “We anticipated 2020 with excitement. Then the pandemic hit, and things got challenging. We worked with small businesses to keep them going as much as possible, and we worked with residents to make sure they had what they needed.”

But Deemer says the city made it through 2020 in decent shape. Residents continue to move downtown, new businesses opened in the city center last year, and office space occupancy stayed strong.

“Look at how the community responded—it’s a foundation and it puts us ready to move forward,” he says.

The main concerns of the DCA throughout last year were maintaining residential growth (and hitting a goal of 20,000 residents living downtown by 2020), continued development projects, attraction and retention of small businesses, and filling vacant office space.

Despite the pandemic, DCA came close to its residential goal. Between 2010 and 2020, the city saw a 31% increase in residents, bringing the total to 19,645 people now living downtown.

Anticipating a slowdown in residential growth, DCA kept up its campaign to woo people downtown. The results: 71 homes sales (compared to 76 in 2019), and an 84.1% occupancy rate (from 90% in 2019), despite an influx of new housing options on the market last year.

DCA officials feared that maintaining and filling office space would be an issue with the lockdown, with many employees working from home, but Deemer says it doesn’t seem to be the case. “We have more than 740,000 square feet of offices the [employers] re-committed to or contracted to rent,” he says. “Sherwin-Williams keeping its global headquarters in downtown Cleveland and its decision to build in the heart of the city was an exciting way to begin the year."  In fact, overall office space occupancy was at 81.1%, compared to 80% in 2019.

Deemer adds that 13 new retail and restaurant businesses opened their doors in 2020 as well.

Thanks to the Greater Cleveland COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund, $1.3 million in grants was given to 88 downtown businesses to help them stay open and retain employees during a year when foot traffic was down. Retail occupancy held at 88.3% in 2020, compared to 89% in 2019.

Real estate development projects stayed strong with $320 million in projects, including transformative residential projects, outdoor recreation enhancements, office space, and hotel renovations. “One of the things we’re most pleased about is the development pipeline continues to build,” Deemer says.

Nine projects, which include the Lumen and The May, were completed, while six are under construction, including the 75 Public Square residential apartment project.

“And we have a new wave of residential projects under way,” says Deemer. “City Club Apartments is breaking ground in the near future, the Centennial renovation will be complete later this year, and the next phase of The Flats East Bank will occur late this year. Sherwin-Williams will be the end of the year.”

Deemer says all of this means positive things for the future of downtown Cleveland—and he eagerly awaits the time when things are back to normal.

“We took a necessary break,” he says. “After what was a very tough 2020, we welcome good news.”

As more people get vaccinated, Deemer predicts people will be flocking to downtown.  “We thrive on being together,” he says. “People enjoy working together, people enjoy being together. We’ll continue to see it grow, if not accelerate, in the next few weeks. The team at the Downtown Cleveland Alliance is here every day, and with each passing day downtown feel more lively and more crowded than the day before.”

Looking ahead in 2021, Deemer says the DCA will put a heavy emphasis on public health—ensuring vaccine distribution continues to go smoothly and avoiding a spike in COVID-19 cases—as well as focusing on equity and inclusion in the city.

“We want this to be a vibrant and inclusive community and we’re rising to meet this challenge,” he says. “This is something that is very important to us this year, and beyond.”

Deemer says one of the ways the DCA wants to ensure inclusion is with its events—including an upcoming Juneteenth celebration this summer—although he admits event planning has been a challenge without knowing the course of the pandemic this summer. “We’re taking a wait-and-see mentality,” he says. “But we will continue to animate downtown with events that are welcoming and inclusive to all.”

<span class="content-image-text">The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony returns to Cleveland in October.</span>The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony returns to Cleveland in October.“We see a place that all of Cleveland comes together and celebrates,” says Deemer. “We want to make sure all of Cleveland sees it as that place going forward.”

Deemer says the future of downtown is looking bright in 2021. “After a really tough year, I think this is the moment we’ve been waiting for—beginning with 6,000 shots a day at the Wolstein Center.”

But Deemer also reminds Clevelanders that we have baseball returning to Progressive Field soon, the 2021 NFL Draft coming to town later this spring, Playhouse Square’s Broadway Series returning in the fall (the lights come on at Playhouse Square on June 11 with the “Choir of Man”), and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony in October.

“For the first time in a long time, it feels like we have a lot of things to look forward to,” says Deemer.

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.