work in progress: cleveland making strides to attract young talent

The message Cleveland puts out into the world of mobile, job-seeking young professionals is not complicated. For those who don't know, the city is a place where culture, education, creativity and innovation flourishes affordably.
According to those at the front lines of promoting this message to the nation's young creatives, the good word is spreading. The process perhaps is slower than Cleveland's most vocal champions would like, but the strategy itself is ambitious and is drawing attention from the human economic engines the region is striving to attract.
Others are not so optimistic, arguing that the strategies in place don't go far enough to forge lasting civic bonds.
Nonprofit organization LiveCleveland promotes the livability of 36 neighborhoods within the city limits. The group works with a network of community development groups and city administrators to repopulate a city depleted by urban sprawl.
"We deal with those who may have a generic mental image of what Cleveland is," explains executive director Jeff Kipp.
LiveCleveland's main target audience is young professionals, a group that has been steadily filling up downtown apartments and condominiums to near capacity. The demand is growing, says Kipp, with up to nearly 1,500 new units of housing being currently built.  
"These are neighborhoods offering what young people are looking for," Kipp says. "Downtown's success is bleeding into the West Side, too."
Promoting affordable, manageable living is a must with Cleveland still feeling the effects of the foreclosure crisis, he says. What's more, a growing wealth of educational options can keep YPs in Cleveland proper once they decide to have a family.
"There won't be overnight success, but Cleveland is well-positioned for the demands of homebuyers," says Kipp, an Old Brooklyn resident whose two daughters attend Tremont Montessori.
Cleveland needs a "magic number" of 20,000 downtown residents to create a truly livable, mixed-use environment, notes Kipp. Real success will come through grassroots marketing from the folks living what local nonprofits like LiveCleveland are attempting to sell.
"We need people to share their good experiences with their inner circles," he says.
Andrew Bennett may be the near-perfect representation of the demographic Cleveland is trying to attract. Young, energetic and thrilled to trumpet his love for the city to anyone who will listen, Bennett, 26, boomeranged back from New York City in 2008 to work as a marketing manager for a tech startup.
The Tremont resident has also served as board president of The Cleveland Professional 20/30 Club, and is currently co-chair of Engage! Cleveland, a nonprofit that acts as an organizing body for the 80-plus young professional groups in town. Helping to lead efforts to attract, retain and involve young talent, Bennett believes Cleveland's reasonably priced quality of life can be a powerful YP magnet.
As a returning resident himself, Bennett was happily surprised by the city’s emergent arts and culture scene, walkable urban neighborhoods and recreational opportunities. However, a marketing strategy positing these points will only take the city so far, he maintains. What really jazzed Bennett about Cleveland was the opportunity to get directly involved in the city's resurgence.
"Involvement leads to excitement," says Bennett. "When you have an engaged community -- that makes the city attractive to young people."
Plugging young pros into boards will motivate them to spread that all-important word-of-mouth about local job growth and vibrant cultural amenities to their friends. If Bennett has a message for Cleveland leadership, it's "listen [to YPs] and actually act on their suggestions," he says. "I'm seeing a commitment and passion from people wanting to make a difference. These people want to be part of Cleveland."
Joy Roller has lead Global Cleveland's efforts to connect newcomers to the city's economic and social advantages for just two months, but the organization's new president already feels like she's part of something unique.
To further its mission, Global Cleveland is now creating a comprehensive strategy that includes an online informational tool detailing Cleveland's resources. The user-friendly platform will carry video interviews in multiple languages.
"It's not just going to be a list of things," says Roller. "It will show that something new and different is going on in Cleveland."
The group's target demographic ranges from YPs to boomerangers to international students looking to land employment. Roller, a former television producer who's lived on both coasts as well as pricey points in between, believes more talented young minds will migrate to Cleveland with a better understanding of what the city has to offer. These advantages include rating as one of the most affordable big U.S. cities, according to the new Worldwide Cost of Living survey highlighted in The Wall Street Journal.  

"We are selling the authentic American dream," Roller says. "The scope of what [Global Cleveland] is doing is as ambitious as can be."
Some observers of Cleveland's "brain gain" strategies are not so optimistic. Teri Wang, 34, is a Tremont writer and entrepreneur. The young adults she knows, many of them from Cleveland's Asian community, are transient and have shown little interest in developing the community beyond their "wine and dining" power, she says.
The Shanghai-born Wang knows a handful of people leaving Cleveland for larger cities, and several more who don't plan to stay beyond their current residencies. The city's efforts to sell itself don't go deep enough to make it a serious contender for those eyeing attractive enclaves like Chicago or San Francisco.
"Cleveland should not just be a pit stop," says Wang. "We need to swing for the fences and not just say, 'We're not that bad.'"
Wang sees talent here, but worries Cleveland's old-guard mentality, one that doesn't always recognize needs of the young people it wants to keep, will result in a city that continues to shrink in population as well as in the minds of dynamic young professionals.
"You need risk-taking and forward momentum in a global economy," Wang says. "People who criticize Cleveland shouldn't be dismissed as pessimists."
Bennett of Engage! Cleveland thinks his city is on the right track, but that shouldn't preclude Cleveland leaders from putting their trust in the local talent that wants to stay here.
"Our expertise, time and energy is hugely valuable," he says. "We have assets. Make them part of your business decisions."

Photos Bob Perkoski

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.   
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