former ad man alan glazen says cleveland's neighborhoods abound in economic opportunity

I was an early starter when it came to careers. As a teenager, I worked at Dix & Eaton Advertising -- until I got fired. And then I worked at Case Western Reserve University -- until I got fired. In fact, during my first 21 years, I got fired from every job I held.

Obviously, I was unemployable. That's why I started my own business, Glazen Advertising, which later became Glazen Creative Studios, both companies of some consequence. After 35 years (and my induction into the Advertising Hall of Fame), I retired, passing the firm on to managers who could take over the reigns and pursue their own goals.

I was 55 years old, financially independent, and ready to spend the rest of my days swinging on a hammock on Kelleys Island. I had sold my apartment in New York City and used the money to buy a cabin on the Lake Erie island. On a whim, me and my friends, photographer Martin Reuben and ferry boat captain Scott Stevenson, launched Erie Island Coffee, a small coffee shop on Kelleys Island. The business gave me my first taste of the hospitality industry. At the time, I wasn't sure if I was evolving or devolving, but I sure liked it. I was relaxed for the first time in my life.

With time on my hands I wandered the Cleveland streets, making the rounds between my house in Edgewater and The Club at Key Center, where I still swim three times a week. I'd have breakfast at West Side Market Café, where my old friends Randy and Linda Kelly had earned a reputation for offering tasty food and great service to real neighborhood people.

Randy would go on and on about the opportunities in the Ohio City area, and I would do my best to appear interested. I didn't want an opportunity -- I was through with stress and decision-making. On the other hand, I had no interest in golf, and I had travelled plenty. My retirement was not going to be spent on a cruise ship to the Bahamas to shop for trinkets.

Thankfully, I was rescued by a great coincidence. I had always admired a tired, old dive bar on W. 25th Street called ABC the Tavern. Randy's friend owned it, and he wanted out. Randy wanted in. Together with Randy and Linda we purchased it, and I was on my way to shifting my "ad man" identity to that of "restaurateur." Or, as Randy calls me, "taverneer." I didn't know the first thing about the biz aside from how to order and pay for food and drink. But my team did, and they delivered.

ABC became a hipster hangout, doing tremendous volume and attracting young people from all over town. The place continues to be packed with young professionals, creatives, and most important, service industry folks. Half our business comes after midnight! Tips are in the 30-percent range.

So much for retirement! I felt the same way I did almost 40 years prior when I recognized an enormous opportunity in advertising. The other 140 or so Cleveland ad agencies at the time were run largely by business and sales people. Few by creative folks like me. Clients were growing tired of the accounting firm-style services from their marketing firms. Creativity and authenticity was what they were clamoring for.

It's the same story now. Shoppers are growing tired of soulless big box stores and contrived "lifestyle centers." These places lack any ties to the community. They have no local personality. There is no desire for excellence; no quest to be the best; no locally sourced foods. If you opened a Friday's or Applebee's in Ohio City, it would be a ghost town.

ABC grew in much the same way as my ad agency and production house: by word of mouth from folks who thrilled at discovering something unique, something genuine, something local. This wasn't a trick -- but it turned out to be just the ticket.

Less than a year after ABC opened, it had paid 100-percent return on its investment. It was time to see if we could replicate the formula in a new neighborhood. The question of which neighborhood was easy: Detroit Shoreway. Having lived in Brooklyn, I felt right at home. Detroit Avenue was just like Smith Street in Carroll Gardens, where many New York chefs were opening indie bistros.

After a few false starts, we settled on another neglected old spot, this time Perry's Family Restaurant. We turned that property into XYZ the Tavern, which is a few notches above ABC in terms of creature comforts. The tavern is already off to a great start, destined to be one of the most popular places in Gordon Square.

I tell you all of this not to brag, but because my appetite for opportunity has turned up all sorts of business ideas that are ripe for the taking. And those opportunities are in Cleveland's neighborhoods. Despite headlines to the contrary, more people are moving into the city than they have been for decades. They come to eat, drink, shop and live.

Right now, Tremont, Ohio City and Detroit Shoreway offer entrepreneurs great opportunity. Other areas -- like Collinwood and University Circle -- are experiencing growth as well. These places are attracting residents because as a whole, people are returning to their urban roots. No longer considered urban pioneers, these folks have discovered that you can enjoy the best of Cleveland's past, while building a great new future.

Although these areas still are underserved, the commercial prospects often are misunderstood by entrepreneurs. These days, the watchword is "authenticity." You can no longer get away with selling overpriced junk or serving substandard food. A hair salon has got to be artful and affordable. Clothing must be smart not silly. Today's customers want the real thing, not a pre-mixed, processed version.

The word "artisan" comes to mind as I examine the landscape taking shape between ABC on West 25th, and XYZ at West 65th. The people who live and work in these areas are not compromising types. Rich or poor, they pride themselves on quality work, sustainability, and eagerness to support local merchants who do the same.

And I assure you -- there is money to be made. You can absolutely make a living in these urban neighborhoods and others. Just do ordinary things extraordinarily. Offer exceptional things accessibly. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

Why should you open your bicycle repair shop in a Cleveland neighborhood rather than in a suburb like Solon or Westlake? Because you share a spirit with the bike messengers and people who ride to work each day instead of drive.

Why open a tailor shop or gourmet take-out? Because your customers will appreciate every stitch and savor every sip. They will share your interests, your goals, your desire for a more successful neighborhood. In areas like Ohio City, the foodies aren't just fans; they're fellow cooks, bartenders, and servers, all eager to support like-minded folks.

You can take advantage of all this right now -- and the city needs you to do so! Money is available. Talk to your ward councilman or your local community development corp. Real estate is abundant, and all matter of demand is waiting to be supplied.

As I said, the pioneering phase is over, but the hard work continues. Without a continued influx of the right people opening the right businesses, these opportunities remain fragile. We cannot afford failures. Don't go in with a nickel and expect a million. Don't take short cuts. Come to these areas with more than just something to peddle. Bring something and someone to build upon. Bring a team you can trust.

Just bring it. We welcome the competition.

Photos Bob Perkoski