software entrepreneur has his eye on the sky with plans for lakefront skylift

Jon Stahl has his head in the clouds these days. Well, at least 150 feet off the ground, anyway. But it’s for a good reason. Stahl, president of LeanDog, is envisioning an aerial cable car system -- called SkyLift -- that will take riders to 11 different stops along Cleveland’s waterfront, providing a bird’s-eye view of the city while at the same time delivering passengers to their destinations in a safe, entertaining way.
The idea came about in April when Stahl and SkyLift partner Jim Hickey, president of Arras Keathley, met with Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority president and CEO Will Friedman. The meeting was supposed to be about a potential project to develop the city’s lakefront, but when Friedman turned the conversation to ski lifts, the three went off on a tangent and the idea for the aerial cable car system was born.
“I think it would really help people rediscover Cleveland,” says Stahl. “It would be the complete Cleveland experience.” Stahl envisions placing informational videos and advertising on board the enclosed gondolas, the smallest of which can hold eight to 10 people. “We want a complete digital car experience,” he says. “And a complete Cleveland experience.”
While the Port Authority is not yet officially involved in the project, Friedman is enthusiastic about Stahl’s plan. “I personally think the concept is worthy of consideration because it could be a world-class, signature attraction for our lakefront and provide needed connectivity between nodes of activity on the east and west sides of the river,” says Friedman, adding that the project needs to be publically vetted.
While at first the concept might sound absurd, Stahl, who operates LeanDog from a boat docked in East Coast Harbor, dreams big. “If you know me, you'd know that I like big, audacious projects that seem impossible,” he says. “That fires me up. Helping facilitate collaboration and teamwork with passionate, bright people that care about the Cleveland community really floats my boat.”
Ward three councilman Joe Cimperman agrees that Stahl dreams big, but he also brings his dreams to reality. “I’m a huge fan of Jon Stahl,” he says. “He is a guy who if he says he’s going to do something, it’s going to happen. Jon’s one of those rare people who can take a really big idea and make something happen. I’ve offered to support him in any way I can.”

Each car will be equipped with multi-lingual digital devices to provide entertainment and education to the riders. “We want to create this experience where you get in the car and whether it’s through your phone, tablet, video display or even a hologram, you get what we’re calling transportainment,” explains Stahl. “We also have the ability to design and build an amazing in-car digital experience that will provide history, facts, and information about Cleveland, its landmarks, and businesses. It’s fun to ride, it’s a form of entertainment, and it gets you to places that are otherwise hard to reach.”

As a software company, Stahl is putting LeanDog’s talents and philosophies to full use in developing SkyLift. “One of our philosophies as a company is to leave things better than we found it, whether it's the products we help build, the cultures we change, or the communities we live in,” explains Stahl. “The SkyLift project isn't all that different in theory, but it's much larger than just one company. We want everyone in Cleveland to collaborate and work together to make things happen, and it is happening.”

The SkyLift would originate at the Municipal Lot and travel to 11 destinations, including Burke Lakefront Airport, the Convention Center, Wendy Park, Edgewater Park, both banks of the Flats and the riverfront casino.
“Cleveland has a fantastic waterfront, and there's an opportunity to make our city rock,” says Stahl. “We love being on the water -- our office is a boat -- and we want to share that experience with as many people as we can. It would be pretty cool if the LeanDog team could say that we had a hand in helping Cleveland evolve its image and improve the access to the waterfront challenge.”
Because Cleveland is mostly a grid pattern, the SkyLift route is easy to implement. Curves and turns are more difficult. “I’m originally from Pittsburgh, and it wouldn’t be so easy there,” says Stahl of that city’s hilly and winding terrain.
Stahl also says it would be simple to expand the line to perhaps University Circle. “The possibilities are endless.”
Stahl has done a lot of research on the project. After speaking to manufacturers and consultants, the latest numbers show it would cost about $3 to $5 million to build each of the 11 stations. The electro-mechanical portion, which includes things like the cables and the cars, would cost between $100 million and $130 million.
Stahl is conducting a feasibility study to better nail down the costs. “The number we are estimating until the feasibility study is complete is $185 million, plus or minus 30 percent,” he says. “The proposed feasibility study will help us firm up the cost of the project as well as provide us with the full economic impact.” 
The feasibility study will cost about $700,000 over six months. Stahl plans to hire a team of experts who will look at 30 points. The team will include cable car experts from Switzerland, Austria, British Columbia and Colorado. Cleveland team members will be hired to provide the construction, management, financial, legal, marketing, design and technology skills.  
To do the feasibility study, Stahl has launched a $500,000 Indiegogo campaign. “To get the ball rolling, we need $500,000 to hire two aerial cable car engineers, a financial consultant, a project manager, and administrative help for six months,” Stahl says. Contributors to the campaign get gifts ranging from stickers and posters to a commemorative brick, a plaque or lifetime memberships to ride the SkyLift.
Since April, LeanDog has invested $100,000 into the project. Stahl has eight LeanDog employees working full time on the project, working with the cable car manufacturers, gaining Cleveland advocacy, website development, the Indiegogo campaign, building a flight simulator and social media development. Facebook and Twitter accounts already have developed a following.
Despite the costs, the benefits to the city would make up for it long-term, both in jobs and economic impact. Stahl estimates at least 100 jobs would be created in operating SkyLift, not to mention the local companies that would be used to build the system.

Stahl also sees SkyLift as a great way to drawing one of the national political conventions to Cleveland. “If we create this iconic system for Cleveland, maybe it would improve our chances of winning a political convention in 2016 with a $160 million economic impact,” he says. “The national political parties are expected to make site decisions in spring 2014.”
Stahl has been drumming up support for SkyLift from city officials and representatives. So far, he has found tremendous support around town. “The advocacy has been amazing,” he says. “It’s been so positive.”
Stahl has gained support from RTA, Positively Cleveland, Burke Airport, Geis Companies and Cimperman, among others. All believe the SkyLift would have a positive impact on Cleveland. “I am excited about the possibility of a privately funded project that could nicely complement RTA's Waterfront Line and downtown trolleys,” says RTA general manager Joe Calabrese. “It could connect tourist venues with a unique flair."
Cimperman sees SkyLift as a great way to reconnect Clevelanders to Lake Erie and the amenities its shores offer. “SkyLift brings different parts of the city together,” he says. “Places like Wendy Park and Whiskey Island, which are beautiful parks, are so difficult to get to right now. Jon is an exporter of creativity. He has the ability to find capital and resources to make something happen.”
Friedman is anxious to see the results of the feasibility study. “I applaud Jon Stahl for his entrepreneurial spirit and for taking initiative,” says Friedman. “Jon has taken the bull by the horns. I’m looking forward to participating in the process to determine if this exciting idea is feasible and a good fit for our burgeoning lakefront.”
To further build excitement for the project, Stahl actually bought a gondola from one of the leading manufacturers, Leitner-Poma in Grand Junction, Colorado. The $14,000 demo car sits outside the LeanDog boat, inviting visitors to take a seat inside and check it out for themselves.
Stahl plans to put the demo car on a trailer and take it around the city, showing a flight simulation video of the SkyLift experience.
The cable cars can travel between 11 and 35 miles per hour, and could move faster during Browns games and other events with high traffic. Stahl points out that many of the stops coordinate with RTA stops and parking lots. He says all of the cars are ADA compliant, riders can bring their bikes on board and 20 percent of the cars will be pet-friendly.
Fares on SkyLift would be $3.50, or $7 for an all-day pass. Stahl says they may also offer monthly and yearly passes.
Check out the promotional video here:

Read more articles by 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.
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