A look back, a glimpse ahead: CDCs navigated challenges in building up communities in 2021

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2021 has been another stark reminder that we are living through an era of monumental change, whether we like it or not. This nationwide outlook is reflected here at home, with Cleveland Community Development Corporations (CDCs) serving citizens amid an ongoing virus crisis and mayoral changeover.

Though challenged by these “interesting times,” a trio of local CDC leaders are striving to accentuate the positive while casting ahead to a brighter future.

<span class="content-image-text">Among the residential offerings is One University Circle, a 276-unit, 530,000-square-foot high rise in University Circle.</span>Among the residential offerings is One University Circle, a 276-unit, 530,000-square-foot high rise in University Circle.University Circle
The last year has witnessed a “soup to nuts” transition in how University Circle Inc. (UCI) does business, notes UCI’s vice president of community development Debbie Berry. With museums offering only virtual events, the organization created family-based programming like Yay! Saturdays, which brought in-person workshops, fitness, and other fun events to Wade Oval in University Circle.

Neighborhood institutions like the Cleveland Museum of Art have since reopened, though even during COVID-induced closures, the city’s cultural hotbed brought virtual exhibits to the art-loving public. Meanwhile, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is going strong as well, recently debuting its newest exhibit, 100 Years of Discovery: A Museum’s Past, Present & Future. The interactive program honors a century of historical moments as well as a glimpse into what’s ahead.

Alongside bringing attention to area culture, UCI continues to help new businesses take root. University Circle is at 100% retail capacity, thanks to introduction of seven new shops and the relocation of two others into renovated spaces. This spring, Plum Market—a Detroit-based natural grocery store—opened in University Circle’s Uptown District. Of the nine new businesses in Uptown, seven are locally owned or maintained by minority or women entrepreneurs.

<span class="content-image-text">Debbie Berry</span>Debbie BerryThe community’s retail success has carried over to its living spaces, as all of University Circle’s major residential buildings are also at full occupancy. Among these residential offerings is One University Circle, a 276-unit, 530,000-square-foot high rise on the former Children’s Museum site.

“It’s been a really great year for people trying to get out and experience the community,” Berry says. “We’ve got a nimble, great team able to think of creative ways to handle things.”

A robust suite of amenities doesn’t mean much without a healthy citizenry to enjoy them. When the COVID-19 vaccine became widely available to the public in March, UCI helped residents register for both doses and facilitated transportation to and from vaccination sites. Additionally, UCI partnered with Cleveland Foundation to host pop-up vax clinics and educational events to bolster response to the public health crisis.

The organization is also putting out policy feelers to Mayor-elect Justin Bibb, who represents Cleveland’s first new mayoral leader in 16 years. Berry hopes to align with the administration on efforts like Project Yield, a community-driven safety initiative designed to curb serious injury from traffic accidents.

Berry says, “We feel we can enhance the work the city’s doing already, because we have different capabilities than other CDCs. We’re always willing and wanting to be a good partner.”

<span class="content-image-text">Over the last 12 months, Old Brooklyn is focusing more on scale-ups and growth.</span>Over the last 12 months, Old Brooklyn is focusing more on scale-ups and growth.Old Brooklyn
Over the last 12 months, Old Brooklyn has shifted away from a “triage approach” of assisting local small businesses to focusing more on scale-ups and growth.

To that end, the Old Brooklyn Community Development Corporation (OBCDC) and Cleveland Neighborhood Progress presented owners a series of grants ranging from $1,000 to $1,500. Grantees used the funds for small but crucial initiatives—including online branding or purchasing key equipment.

<span class="content-image-text">Lucas Reeve</span>Lucas Reeve“This wasn’t a COVID-type approach for people to just pay their rent,” says Lucas Reeve, director of neighborhood development for the OBCDC. “Even at that smaller scale of investment, that’s a lot of money when you’re trying to pay your employees and keep the business going. So many people we spoke to had previous plans to build their business, but they didn’t have the money to do it.”

Reeve also witnessed at least one positive carryover from 2020—residents supporting hard-hit retailers as a means of civic pride as much as supporting the owners themselves. Cleveland’s largest and most populated neighborhood has launched 30-plus new businesses in the last five years, a testament to the neighborhood’s burgeoning ethnic diversity.

“Supporting shops becomes a part of muscle memory, especially with folks pushing away from big box stores,” says Reeve. “The pipeline of entrepreneurs in Old Brooklyn is as strong as ever.”

Old Brooklyn further flexed its muscles this year when getting residents out and about. The opening of Brighton Park brought 25 acres of trees, meadows and trails connecting the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo to the Towpath Trail on the city’s west side.

COVID-19 worries likely limited turnout at some outdoor events, even as Reeve and his team delivered health needs assessments and vaccination information to concerned community members.

For 2022, Reeve is excited to double down on the neighborhood’s connectedness to vital community corridors.

“Whether it’s through art and mural projects, placemaking efforts, or programming at parks and green spaces, we want to bring more folks into the community,” Reeve says.

<span class="content-image-text">Midtown Cleveland Inc. is aiming to become a destination following an up-and-down pandemic year.</span>Midtown Cleveland Inc. is aiming to become a destination following an up-and-down pandemic year.Midtown
Positioned between downtown Cleveland and University Circle, Midtown Cleveland Inc. is aiming to become a destination following an up-and-down pandemic year, says Jeff Epstein, executive director of MidTown Cleveland,

Work-from-home orders sapped some of the neighborhood’s energy, considering its daytime population of 18,000 makes it one of Northeast Ohio’s biggest job centers. While much of Midtown still has a pass-through feel, city planners are anticipating $300 million in projects scheduled for the months and years ahead.

The Cleveland Foundation broke ground on its new headquarters at the corner of Euclid Avenue and East 66th Street, with the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET), readying its soon-to-be home at the former Margaret Ireland School.

Meanwhile, The Midtown Apartments near downtown offers 90 luxury units and space for retail on the ground floor.

What’s more, a master plan completed by MidTown CDC this summer is highlighted by green, outdoor gathering spaces together with new housing and mixed-use development. Small businesses like Midtown’s Cloud Kitchen concept are also adapting and thriving, Epstein adds.

“By September, we’ll have three major projects ready to provide connectivity and accessibility for residents,” says Epstein, pointing to the MAGNET and Cleveland Foundation projects along with the Signet’s Foundry Lofts development currently underway on Euclid Avenue near East 73rd Street.

After a year of navigating owners to PPP loans, Midtown’s CDC is spearheading bulk meal purchases from AsiaTown eateries, which are then delivered to food insecure residents. Further boosting AsiaTown’s diverse population of 2,000 this year was Cleveland Walls, an arts and culture celebration that quite literally painted the town in colorful murals.

“It’s about community building and pushing forward despite the pandemic,” says Epstein. “There is a deep, strong engagement with the people here.”

This story is part of FreshWater’s series, Community Development Connection, in partnership with Cleveland Neighborhood Progress and Cleveland Development Advisors. The series seeks to raise awareness about the work of 29 Community Development Corporations (CDCs) as well as explore the efforts of neighborhood-based organizations, leaders, and residents who are focused on moving their communities forward during a time of unprecedented challenge.

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Crain’s Cleveland Business, Ideastream, and Middle Market Growth. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.