Growing up on Cleveland's East Side as the child of a Slovenian immigrant, Cleveland city councilman Joe Cimperman understands the need for a welcoming environment that connects newcomers to the city's burgeoning economic and social opportunities.
Cimperman will have a direct line to this talent-laden demographic as the new president of Global Cleveland, a nonprofit economic development group focused on enticing and retaining immigrants, refugees and other newcomers.
The councilman, who has served the constituents of Ward 3 and the City of Cleveland for the last 18 years, will begin his new job in the spring after wrapping up city budget hearings. He replaces Joy Roller, who resigned from the position in April.
Fresh Water contributing writer Douglas J. Guth spoke with Cimperman this week to discuss his new position and transition from the public sector.
Fresh Water: How are you preparing for your role with Global Cleveland?
Joe Cimperman: The staff at Global Cleveland is already helping me get up to speed. I've been having one-on-one conversations with staff about upcoming initiatives. I've also been getting texts, and I don't even know how many tweets and emails, from the community.
People want to help because they know how important this work is. We already have ideas, but there's going to be things I have to learn and things I have to focus on. I'll be taking a deep dive [into it] over the spring and summer.
FW: What will you miss most about your work with city council?
JC: The privilege of working with the people I get to work for, from those constructing huge buildings to those planting community gardens. I look at those people and they're not that different from each other. They are quietly going about their business of making this a city worth welcoming people to.
I'm going to miss my colleagues on council, men and women who I consider my heroes. Now I'll be working with them in a different capacity.
FW: What in your skill set makes you the best fit for the Global Cleveland position?
JC: My job is to be a bridge between resource and need. When I was elected to city council, we had 2,000 people downtown; now we have 16,000. I'm comfortable being the person who brings others to the table.
Cleveland has been getting 750 to 800 refugees every year for a decade now. What does that mean for someone with a company that needs to fill jobs? Or someone living next to a vacant house that would be a wonderful place [for an immigrant] to live in?
I was raised by a mother who was born in Slovenia, and a father who took me to bilingual services every Sunday. I marinated in this place; a city that has given me everything I understand in the world.
My being here requires me to pay the city back. I do what I can to convey the greatness of our people because I wouldn't be here without them.
FW: What are the biggest challenges Global Cleveland faces in 2016 and beyond?
JC: It's going to be a matter of focusing on what we're doing and doing it well. There's an opportunity to welcome thousands of people for the Republican National Convention. This translates to millions who will be watching across the globe. That's an opportunity to show why Cleveland is a place to move to and open a business.
So many people don't know us, but once they know us, they fall in love. How do we continue to make those introductions? I'm going to have a community to help me with those ideas. There are those in the community who have the abilities to help us make opportunities happen.
FW: What is the city still missing in the race for newcomers?
JC: We're not missing a lot. It's a matter of conveying the message that every person who loves Cleveland be deputized as an ambassador. People who get the flavor of who we are do the work of being an ambassador for us. I look around the city and see what it's done for guys like me.
The goal is to get into those wind streams and let others know what we're doing. If a kid like me can make it, what happens when we become that city to each other and the rest of the world?
FW: What is Cleveland's greatest asset?
JC: Love. We're good, loving people, whether we're from Selma, San Juan or Slovenia. People emailed me after the Gay Games [in 2014] to say how fantastic their welcome was. That's Cleveland; that's what we do. We have greatness right here.
FW: What is your favorite restaurant in Cleveland?
JC: I'm a kid who loves the great food of Superior Pho as much as I do the schnitzel or cevapcici (skinless sausage) [at area restaurants]. It's funny what happens when you break bread with people. A good meal brings us closer together as sisters and brothers.