q&a: ronn richard, president of the cleveland foundation

Ronn Richard came to Cleveland 11 years ago to serve as President of the Cleveland Foundation. Before that, he was head of Research and Development and a sales company President at Panasonic North America, a diplomat with the State Department, and Managing Partner of the venture capital arm of the Central Intelligence Agency. In a candid, wide-ranging interview with Fresh Water, he discusses the foundation's centennial gifts, the impacts of the Greater University Circle Initiative and the Transformation Plan, and the organization's focus on revitalization of the city.

Can you talk about the grants and gifts made during the centennial year, the impact they’re making, and the strategy behind them?

With the centennial year, you could break it into three areas. There’s our normal grant making, which continues monthly and quarterly. Then we’ve had these monthly gifts to the community, starting with the RTA in January, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Science Museum, University Circle institutions, and most recently the Good Time III. Then we’ve had some very special centennial gifts. Of course, the $8 million for Public Square. The other one was the $5 million for the Lake Link Trail – to finally connect this bike trail all the way to the water, to Wendy Park on Whiskey Island.

"We feel very strongly that the redo of Public Square will catalyze a whole lot of redevelopment activity downtown."
They were under the heading of public access to important public spaces. I think we all know what happened in Chicago after they got Millennium Park, and in New York after they got the High Line. So public spaces are very important. Cleveland hasn’t been very good, or as good as we could have been, in our use of public spaces. We feel very strongly that the redo of Public Square will catalyze a whole lot of development downtown, and sort of create a connective tissue – right now, there’s no connective tissue between Public Square and the new convention center or North Coast harbor.
February’s Cleveland Foundation Weekend at the Great Lakes Science Center

There’s those huge surface parking lots just north of Public Square. We really think those will be built on, and that the Square will come together, and we won’t just have this ugly parking lot in the middle. Sort of like Rockefeller Center in New York where the ice rink is, we’ll have an enclosed block. We’re going to have the ice rink area named after us, and it will be called The Cleveland Foundation Centennial Plaza. During the summer, it will become a water play area for kids. This will be a space the public will use, and we think this will lead to more development and people living downtown.

"Forty years ago, they were going to knock the theatres down ... But we wrote the check -- someone had to write the check."
If you think about it, we started in Playhouse Square. Forty years ago, they were going to knock the theatres down. But people said, ‘This is too great of a jewel to let go,’ and that started the movement. But we wrote the check – someone had to write the check. Then we did the Uptown project, and now we’re putting a huge amount of money in Midtown. If Euclid is a spine, then the bottom of the spine is really Public Square. I think it’s really like our Pennsylvania Avenue. We think this investment will lead to the revitalization of the area between Public Square and Playhouse Square.

What’s next is the strengthening of the ribs that come off of that spine. We need to revitalize Hough and Glenville and all of the poor neighborhoods of Cleveland that were once thriving middle class neighborhoods. Anybody who thinks we can have a thriving downtown, but it’s OK that our neighborhoods are very poor … you don’t bring back a city that way. We need to bring back these low income neighborhoods in a way that makes them mixed neighborhoods – racially integrated, not gentrification.

If you really look at the geography of University Circle, the area between University Circle and the Clinic, the area that they’re now calling Upper Chester in Hough, there’s no reason that this area shouldn’t come back like gangbusters in the future. We don’t want to leave it to chance. We’re doing everything we can to make it happen.

One of the initiatives that The Cleveland Foundation has undertaken in the last 10 years is the Greater University Circle Initiative. What impact is it having?

To understand that, you have to understand why we call it Greater University Circle instead of University Circle. Basically, our first thought was that we need to make a main street for Case and UH. But a funny thing happened on the way to the project. My wife volunteered for a few years as a painting teacher at the Cleveland School for the Arts. The first week, she had three classes, each with 14 kids, 100 percent African American. After the first week, she was very upset when I came home on a Friday night. She told her kids their assignment for the weekend was to go to the art museum, pick their three favorite paintings, then compare and contrast five things she’d taught them. As she said this to each of her classes, they all said, ‘Where’s the art museum?’

This was shocking to my wife. These were kids at the Cleveland School of the Arts, and not one of them had been to the art museum, which at the time had a giant banner hanging off of the side that said “free.” A kid named Tasha said, ‘We sort of knew it was there, but we didn’t think it was for us.’ So she came home very upset, told me this story, then looked at me and said, ‘What you are going to do about this?’

"I literally visited Toby Cosgrove, Ed Hundert and Tom Zenty and said I only need 10 seconds of your time, would you please start thinking of University Circle as Greater University Circle? ... And they all said OK."
So I came in to work on Monday and called in my troops and said, ‘What are we going to do about this?’ We decided if we started by just enlarging University Circle to include the five neighborhoods that encircle it, we could call it Greater University Circle. I literally visited Toby Cosgrove, Ed Hundert and Tom Zenty and said I only need 10 seconds of your time, would you please start thinking of University Circle as Greater University Circle? Because there’s an invisible wall to low income people, especially African Americans, and we need to tear that invisible wall down. And they all said OK.

Green City Growers

"These are very good jobs – above minimum wage with health benefits. Recently, 42 employees received checks, their first ownership profit share."
Then we started a whole series of concrete projects to make that a reality. We started a buy local, hire local program. Next, we said let’s help people fix up their homes and move into the neighborhood. There are something like 300 people who have taken advantage of [the Greater Circle Living Program] so far. Then we started this series of companies called the Evergreen companies – Evergreen Laundry, Evergreen Energy Solutions and Green City Growers. Two have been up and running for four years; they're profitable and already started sharing profits. We have 114 people working there, and I think 38 are prisoner reentry people.

Did you expect job growth to happen more quickly or is it on pace with what you expected?

It’s pretty much on pace. I hope to be here another 12 years before I retire, and I hope there will be 3,000-5,000 people working at the Evergreen companies. We’ve learned a lot. We’re going to bigger scale companies in the future.  

Another area where The Cleveland Foundation has been very involved is education. The Transformation Plan changes are dramatic. How are the schools doing?

First off, I think we’re damn lucky to have Eric Gordon here. The average tenure of an urban superintendent is something like 18 months. Personally, he really wants to see this through. I think we’re making really good progress. When I got here 11 years ago, it was shocking how bad the schools were. It was shocking that the rules that the union had gotten passed in the state legislature were so inimical to the success of the children, such as laying off on seniority only rather than merit. We had some great teachers, but far, far too much dead wood.

The Cleveland Foundation has now worked to start 19 schools.
"More and more kids are finding themselves in a high quality school. I think we’re starting to have a school system like New York where there are real choices."
But we have to close the nonperforming schools and reopen them as new opportunity schools.
February’s Cleveland Foundation Weekend at the Great Lakes Science Center
People often focus on graduation rates. When I came here the graduation rate was 52 percent, and now the graduation rate is 64 percent. But only about 15 percent of kids who come through the Cleveland Public Schools graduate from college. It’s pretty sobering that in such an advanced economy and high tech era, 85 percent of kids coming out of our schools are not getting a college degree.

So we sent Helen Williams, our education program officer, and Shilpa Kedar, our economic development program officer, to Finland and the Netherlands to study their models. In the Netherlands, they have three pathways. There’s the college pathway, K-12. Then there are two other career technical pathways. One is a higher-end, professional pathway that trains people to work in hospitals as phlebotomists and x-ray technicians, things like that. Then they have the other career track, which trains people to work in a factory, or welding.

In the 9th grade, these students get to pick. Just so you don’t think we’re talking about blond-haired blue-eyed Dutch kids, they have a huge number of children that are very low-income from the Middle East and Africa. The low-income kids were the ones dropping out at the highest rates, and not persisting through college at the highest rates. What they found was, a lot of the kids who started apprenticing in the factories said, ‘Maybe I don’t want to do this my whole life, I’d better start studying and get my act together.’ They weren’t out in the real world before.

So the foundation hired a firm [FutureWorks] to do a report on this county, looking at what are available jobs and what does the workforce look like to fill those jobs. It showed us how to create a career pathways program like in the Netherlands.

Where do you see the foundation going as it heads into its next century?

What I’ve learned in the past 11 years is that the most important things are never done. We will always have a focus on K-12 education even if every Cleveland school is rated A on the state report card. That's because ten years from now, society will change so much, we’ll have to change the model again. Our problem is that we have a 1860s factory-agricultural model for
"What I’ve learned in the past 11 years is that the most important things are never done. We will always have a focus on K-12 education ... "
education. How could it be that our kids get three months off to bring in the harvest? It’s insanity. The teachers union has blocked going to an 11 month system. Our kids should have two weeks off at the holidays and two weeks off in the summer.

In terms of areas that we want to focus more on, we altered our economic development strategy last year. Our strategy over the last 11 years was to really focus on intermediaries. We were a founding funder of Team NEO, BioEnterprise and Jumpstart. They helped create the infrastructure in terms of venture capital for startups and the ecosystem for startups. That was great, but we noticed that mostly helped people with college degrees. It created jobs and tax revenues, but what’s been overlooked are the minority low income communities. Looking at the poverty rate, the foreclosure rate, it’s like the bus left the station and they were all left behind. So now we’re really focusing on the core city like a laser beam.

Another area is environmentalism. As you probably know, for the past 10 years we’ve been trying to get a wind farm on Lake Erie. But what we’ve really been trying to do is create an advanced energy industry for Greater Cleveland. When I came here 11 years ago, Cleveland was in bad shape, the PD was doing their series ‘The Quiet Crisis,’ and it was like taking a cold shower every day. My analysis of the situation was – having worked for the foreign service in Japan, having worked for one of the largest electronics companies in the world for 13 years, and having been head of the CIA’s venture capital firm as managing partner, the reason why Cleveland was in such bad shape was simple. We missed the IT revolution. In the first industrial revolution, Cleveland was there.
Ronn with former Cleveland Foundation President Steve Minter at the centennial meeting
My theory was – and remains – that we cannot afford to miss the next industrial revolution. One of the next two revolutions is biotech, which we’re a player in, and the other is advanced energy, which the State of Ohio is doing everything it can to strangle in the cradle. It’s like if you allowed the horse and buggy whip manufacturers to strangle the auto
"My theory was -- and remains -- that we cannot afford to miss the next industrial revolution."
industry in Detroit. We worked for three years to get the Renewable Portfolio Standards bill passed. It forced First Energy and others to buy power from renewable sources like wind and solar. Recently, the legislature gutted the RPS bill. It's ridiculous to say it's just a freeze. We’re the only state in the country that had an RPS bill and then voted to eliminate it. The result is that wind firms like Siemen’s that would have been here are in Iowa.  

This was clearly a nationally-led effort to strangle the advanced energy industry in the cradle. The great irony is that I absolutely believe in the free market. People who have been opposing us are using the excuse that you have to have a free market, you can’t pay higher rates for wind. But if you just took all the subsidies off of fossil fuels, wind power is absolutely the cheapest power today.

The companies that are burning coal, they’re getting to pollute for free. They’re not paying for the degradation [to Lake Erie]. Let me just use business terms because I come out of the business world. We have to start viewing Lake Erie as a fixed asset because that’s what it is. How many gallons are there in Lake Erie, and what do you pay per gallon on your water bill? Do that math: it’s a two trillion fixed asset. So why do utility companies get to impair our most important fixed asset for free? It’s outrageous. It’s a moral outrage. It’s a business outrage.

"They’ve talked about Cleveland as the mistake on the lake. Let me tell you, any city with this much fresh water, it’s not a mistake."
The most important thing The Cleveland Foundation can do is to get leaders to understand that if we don’t protect Lake Erie, we’re destroying our future. With global warming, water will be more important than oil. They’ve talked about Cleveland as the mistake on the lake. Let me tell you, any city with this much fresh water, it’s not a mistake. We have something going for us that not many people have, but only if we don’t destroy it. That’s the message I’m going to wake up and say every day in my life. We have to protect it. We have to start an advanced energy industry. With climate change, we’re going to need that fresh water.  

I just have one more question. On a personal level, what keeps you motivated and engaged in this role?

Because I’ve suffered a lot in my life, and it makes me more sensitive to and cognizant of other people’s suffering.

And when you say you’ve suffered a lot, what do you mean?

My first child is autistic. I know what it’s like to have to deal every day with a child who “doesn’t have a future.” She’s got a future – as long as mom and dad are alive, she’ll be loved every day of her life. I can imagine what it’s like to be the mother of a kid who’s not going to college because the schools stink. I can imagine what it’s like to have a kid who’s ill because of asthma because of the air quality. I can imagine what it’s like to have a kid with cancer at one of our fine hospitals here. Our daughter’s gone through lots of different stages – she’s been violent at times because of autism. We’ve had to deal with a lot of suffering.

"My first child is autistic. I know what it's like to have to deal every day with a child who 'doesn't have a future.'"
A year ago, a driver ran into the back of our car. I’ve been in a lot of pain for 13 months with headaches. But as weird as this sounds, it isn’t a bad thing for the head of the community foundation to wake up every day and feel some pain. Because it reminds me there’s a lot of people in pain in this town. All kinds of different pain. You know? The pain of being in a crappy school. The pain of having a hard time getting transportation to work. The pain of living in a dangerous neighborhood. The pain of your kid being in a gang and you can’t get him out of a gang. The pain of your kid getting pregnant at age 14. There’s just a lot of problems to solve here. And I increasingly feel that this is what I was put on this earth to do.

Read more articles by Lee Chilcote.

Lee Chilcote is founder and editor of The Land. He is the author of the poetry chapbooks The Shape of Home and How to Live in Ruins. His writing has been published by Vanity Fair, Next City, Belt and many literary journals as well as in The Cleveland Neighborhood Guidebook, The Cleveland Anthology and A Race Anthology: Dispatches and Artifacts from a Segregated City. He is a founder and former executive director of Literary Cleveland. He lives in the Detroit Shoreway neighborhood of Cleveland with his family.