A view of downtown Cleveland from Abbey Avenue in Tremont.
Areas throughout Cleveland could be redeveloped under Mayor Bibb’s proposal. A view of downtown Cleveland through a fence on Abbey Avenue Credit: DJ Johnson on Unsplash

Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb proposed investing $50 million of the city’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds in an ambitious plan to transform large areas into attractive locations for major businesses. 

The proposed Site Assembly and Development Fund “could create 65,000 quality jobs that are [close] to residents, reverse population loss, and reactivate vacant land,” according to a statement from the administration. The $50 million — almost one-third of the remaining federal ARPA money — would be used to purchase properties, clean up polluted sites and perform other work to prepare land for redevelopment.

Bold plans to revitalize Cleveland’s economy are nothing new. Could this one live up to the hype?

This time, certain national trends are on the city’s side. Cleveland could be an attractive location for a wide range of industries, ironically for some of the same reasons that they’ve left or stayed away for decades.

Locaction, location, location

The Fund For Our Economic Future and Team NEO, both of which promote economic growth in Northeast Ohio, wrote about this encouraging development in a 2021 report titled “Where Matters.”

“It is widely understood that redeveloping, particularly in cities, presents special challenges due to brownfields, aging infrastructure, and parcel size,” the report stated. But the Fund and Team NEO’s analysis stressed the “potential untapped benefits of these sites” that make them valuable despite — and, in some ways, because of — the challenges.

Those untapped benefits are related to ESG, which stands for Environmental, Social and Governance. ESG is a framework companies use to set goals and evaluate their performance on a range of issues, including sustainability, workforce and leadership diversity, employees’ well-being and impact on communities. 

These metrics are increasingly important to companies’ bottom lines. A recent PwC survey found that 83% of consumers want companies to set and work toward ESG goals, and 86% of employees want to work for companies “that care about the same issues they do.”

After releasing the “Where Matters” report, the Fund and Team NEO collaborated on  ESGP , an online tool that allows companies that are considering moving to or expanding in the region to compare possible sites on:

• Access to Talent: How big is the labor pool within a 30-minute car commute and a 30-minute public transit commute?

• Racial Equity: What are the racial and ethnic demographics of the available labor force?

• Commuter Emissions: What are the environmental impacts of workers commuting to this site?

Capitalizing on the trend

“We’ve used [ESGP] it for attraction opportunities,” said Bryce Sylvester, Team NEO’s senior director, Site Strategies, “when a company is new to Northeast Ohio and if we can find out if they have an ESG corporate strategy.”

ESGP has led to conversations with about six companies over the past year, Sylvester said. He declined to name any, but said they were in manufacturing, food sciences and agriculture. They’ve discussed a range of issues, including, for example, how cleaning up polluted unused land — which Cleveland has in abundance — and building on it would fit in with environmental goals.

“None of the companies have come out and said that was the deciding factor on what brought them here, but I can tell you, every one of those conversations has been rich and deep,” Sylvester added. “And they appreciate that the region is leaning in on the topics that they’re leaning in on. I think we were the first regional economic development group to at least attempt to make this connection, between location and ESG strategy.”

Sylvester said that the conversations he and colleagues have had with companies using the  ESGP tool have helped them make it more useful. They’ve also shared the tool with economic development and site selection professionals and industry groups across the country.

Director of the Editors’ Bureau (he/him)
Frank is an award-winning reporter and former editor at alternative newsweeklies in Cleveland and Philadelphia. He has worked with writers of all experience levels on beat reporting, features, investigative projects and books.