Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Professor's Amazing Time Travel Machine (or, 1912 or 2011?)

The Professor is inviting me to travel back to 1912 and help him fix the Ohio Constitution!

But I've got another idea. I want to jump ahead to 2011 instead.

My favorite anonymous blogger's had a great time lately over at Political Science 216, trying to start a movement to recall Jimmy Dimora. He created a mesmerizing pop-art logo for it, like Shepard Fairey's Obama poster. He founded a "Recall Dimora" Facebook group that now has 109 members, including Ohio GOP Chairman Bob Bennett.

He even called the Board of Elections to find out how to get a recall petition started. (I hope he was going to use his real name and address, not "Peter Boyd" and Progressive Field.)

That's when he learned a shocking truth (one I didn't know either) -- we can't recall county officials.

You can read the Professor's entertaining law lecture here. But basically, the Progressive-era reforms in Ohio's 1912 constitution were not quite Progressive enough. We can't recall state officials either.

The Professor blames Dimora: "Using technology from MMPI, and flush with cash from Dick Jacobs, Sam Miller and the Ratner Family, Jimmy Dimora traveled back in time in a large time machine and bribed the drafters of Ohio Constitution..."

To fix this, the Professor's hatched a plan worthy of a Hollywood sci-fi caper flick. It involves him, me, blogger Tim Ferris and Plain Dealer columnist Thomas Suddes (surely included in the mission for his vast knowledge of Ohio political arcana: which Ohio counties voted for FDR, which were founded by Connecticut settlers, etc.) traveling back in time like in Quantum Leap to foil Dimora's dastardly plot.

Well, I never knew blogging could be this fun. If anyone's got a time machine, I'll jump in.

But like I said, I've got another idea. It involves 2011, not 1912. I'll post about it tomorrow.

(photo by Adam Lautenbach, from Flickr)

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Mason talks reform

Prosecutor Bill Mason wants to play a part in reforming Cuyahoga County government. He’s been meeting with interested people since the first of the year to talk about it.

“Reform would be a good thing, to reform that government and make us more competitive in the marketplace,” Mason told me today.

The prosecutor’s group is separate from the reform effort I’ve already written about, which includes Parma Heights Mayor Martin Zanotti and other politicians and businessmen (including Lute Harmon, Sr., founder of Cleveland Magazine). Mason is not ready to say who else is in his group yet, but I hear it also includes prominent businesspeople.

Mason, one of the county's most powerful office-holders, is entering a debate that outsiders have mostly driven lately. That could lead to conflict -- or to a creative tension.

I asked him if his group and Zanotti's might join forces. “We have to,” he said. “You can’t have multiple plans.” Dueling reforms would fail at the ballot box. “We need to come to one thought, and make it work.”

Mason says he likes the Zanotti group’s idea of having a single county executive oversee the government. He’s undecided about their proposal to create a county council elected mostly by district.

“I favor one person being in charge,” he says. “But after that, [we should look at] what anyone else is doing — what Louisville is doing, what Indianapolis is doing — to be more competitive.”

Reform is “all about jobs,” says Mason, who laments that his nephews are leaving town to pursue their careers. He feels a stronger county could unify the region around a single economic strategy. (Louisville and Indianapolis actually merged their city and county governments to create a single metro government, but Mason seems to be focusing on county government’s structure.)

“The three commissioners, and six other elected officials, all have their own silos in which they operate,” he complains. “You don’t have one place to go if you want to [build] a factory in town. [You need] somebody in charge, pushing the agenda for the region.”

Mason says the revamped county should have an elected fiscal officer to keep watch on government finances, a check on the county executive. He thinks his job should remain elected for the same reason: a boss shouldn’t tell the prosecutor which felonies to prosecute or what legal advice to give other county officials. “Though you might say, [as] prosecutor, what I say doesn’t matter,” he adds — in other words, he has an obvious self-interest, so others’ opinions will carry more weight.

He says he's open-minded about the details of reform. “I could be persuaded it has to be this way, [or] could be persuaded one way or another,” he says.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Case Western war-crimes expert challenges Bush lawyers on torture

My article about Michael Scharf, war-crimes expert at Case Western's law school, appears in Cleveland Magazine's March issue and is online now.

Scharf advised the judges on the Saddam Hussein trial and co-wrote a book about it, titled Enemy of the State. He's helping Uganda prepare to prosecute a murderous, child-enslaving rebel and advising Cambodian judges how to try leaders of the Khmer Rouge, architects of the 1970s "killing fields."

In his next book, Scharf will take on the Bush Administration lawyers who wrote the "torture memos," which gave official approval to extreme interrogation techniques. He says several Bush Administration officials need to avoid travel to western Europe and Argentina, or risk arrest for violating a key torture treaty. "I think there’s a legal case that they committed crimes," he says.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Zanotti talks reform

More on the county reform effort I reported on last week, from today. Martin Zanotti (pictured), Parma Heights mayor and co-chair of the reform group, says the ballot drive for a county executive and council will launch April 1.

Funniest line: "Zanotti, a Democrat, said he is hopeful Dimora and Russo will not support his plan because he believes their backing would hurt its chances."

Zanotti doesn't have to worry. "Destin Ramsey, Russo's chief operating officer, said the auditor favors streamlining county government, but would not support this plan because it was drafted without officeholder input."

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Why now?

Here's the strangest thing about the Gerald McFaul scandal: the county sheriff faces a special prosecutor's investigation into taped phone calls of his from 1986! Why did his ex-girlfriend wait 23 years to come forward with the tapes? That's not clear yet. But I think the simplest reason this came out in 2009 was because she knew someone wanted to know.

For years, no one watched the county government. Now everyone is watching. What changed?

When I moved to Cleveland in January 2000, the big political story was Mayor Mike White and his battles with Cleveland city council. So I, too, started writing about City Hall. Now and then, as I interviewed sources, some would say, "You know, you should really cover the county!" Cuyahoga County awarded lots of contracts with little scrutiny, they'd say.

I didn't know much about watchdogging government contracts back then, but I sensed my journalistic future didn't lie in looking into who pours asphalt. I remembered what Coleman Young, the salty and quotable former Detroit mayor, once said about counties: "That is a backward form of governmental organization. It goes back to John Wayne, the stagecoach and Judge Bean, and all of that shit." County government was a boring backwater, a sleepy social services provider. I figured City Hall was where the action was. Almost every political reporter in town seemed to agree.

Then, it's summer 2008, and I'm walking out of the Board of Elections office, a thick pile of campaign finance reports teetering under my arm. A guy from the press room sees me and grins slyly. "County officials?" he asks. I nod. (I was working on my Pat O'Malley story.) He laughs. Everyone's after them these days, he says.

Since 2000, Cleveland has run out of money and elected quiet, shy personalities to office. City Hall is no longer where the action is. But the county has made itself a force it had never been before. A few years ago, the commissioners decided they'd stimulate Cleveland's economy with a $700 million building boom: a new convention center and Medical Mart, a juvenile justice center, a huge new county administration building. They bought the Ameritrust Tower, then fought over whether to move into it or tear it down. Attention turned the county's ambitions, its huge workforce, the way it made decisions, its lack of checks and balances.

Then the plans for the Ameritrust Tower went bust, costing taxpayers $6 million -- or $41 million if the county can't sell it. People noticed the county recorder and auditor had way more employees than in Ohio's other big counties. When challenged, county officials reacted poorly. Then the FBI raided the county building.

The Ameritrust deal, patronage exposes and FBI raid were like the realization that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction didn't exist. Much like the Washington press corps after the invasion of Iraq, the local press has revoked the benefit of the doubt and discarded the assumption that county officials are competent and honest. Now they're questioning everything.

Before the FBI stepped in, no one looked at Frank Russo's financial disclosure forms and asked why the guy who sets real estate tax values was moonlighting as a real-estate agent. Before this year, the conventional wisdom said McFaul was a good sheriff. But once someone starts asking questions that weren't asked before, the climate changes. People who know the answers decide it's safe to emerge.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Reform plan: a county council and executive

Some more news about the county reform plan that got a little press this week. Turns out the group county treasurer Jim Rokakis and Parma Heights Mayor Martin Zanotti are in isn't new -- it's the one I mentioned back in November (here, halfway down): the Citizens For Cuyahoga Success.

It's now co-chaired by Zanotti and Lute Harmon, Sr., chairman of Great Lakes Publishing -- which, it so happens, owns Cleveland Magazine. State Sen. Tim Grendell, another member of the group, updated me about its work.

You might think of Grendell (pictured) as a Geauga County politician, but his district also includes four Cuyahoga County towns: Gates Mills, Highland Heights, Mayfield, and some of Mayfield Heights. In December, Grendell's bill to create a Cuyahoga County council passed the state Senate, but it butted up against the plan the House passed, which came from a commission appointed by the governor. Both died in the legislature.

So Grendell teamed up with the group to take reform directly to the ballot. He says a county council can make government more answerable to the public.

"I have a problem with three county commissioners answering to 1.3 million people," Grendell says. "In my scenario, you’d have five Cuyahoga County commissioners representing 260,000 people (each), making them more responsive to their constituents and serving as a (link) to local officials, helping them work on some regional issues."

Two more commissioners would be elected county-wide, Grendell says. So would a county executive, creating a single desk where the buck stops, and a check and balance, with the council and executive keeping each other honest.

It would all be written in a charter, which would give the new county government more powers. But getting a charter proposal on the ballot is tough: it takes 45,000 signatures.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

How long will McFaul last?

Today's front-page PD headline, "McFaul told how to dodge subpoena," makes me wonder, how much longer will Sheriff Gerald McFaul stay in office?

The paper's been after the sheriff since Jan. 2, when he laid off about 20 people but promoted some relatives and friends. Usually, by this point in a scandal, the other side pushes back, accusing the PD of a vendetta. But look at what reporters have found. Sheriff's deputies selling tickets to McFaul's fundraiser in the Justice Center, breaking the law. McFaul using the foreclosure crisis as an occasion for patronage, naming political buddies as real-estate appraisers, even though some don't have a license. Add to that the death of Sean Levert in the county jail last March after sheriff's employees took his medication away.

Now, the paper has a 23-year-old tape of McFaul telling his then-girlfriend how to avoid a subpoena from his alleged ex-girlfriend -- who was suing him for sexual harassment, claiming he fired her after she broke up with him. Girlfriend/Employee #2 didn't testify. Alleged Girlfriend/Employee #1 lost her case.

I don't think any public official survives being heard on tape saying, "The only one who can put the finger on me is you. The only one who can put a finger on you is me." (He was talking with G/E #2 about their relationship, but still!)

Someone needs to start a betting pool: which county official resigns next? I'm placing my bet: it's not Dimora, probably not Russo, but McFaul.
Update, Fri. a.m.: Bill Mason says he'll appoint a special prosecutor. "The rule of law applies equally to all -- let the chips fall where they may," Mason says. A local attorney says McFaul may have "committed bribery, obstructed official business, obstructed justice and interfered with someone's civil rights."

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

New reform plan, new auditor?

Mark Naymik's opinion column in today's Plain Dealer breaks some political news. After Naymik asks why local Democrats aren't more outraged over cronyism in Cuyahoga County government, he drops these two scoops:

-Parma Heights Mayor Martin Zanotti and Cuyahoga County Treasurer Jim Rokakis are working on a ballot proposal to replace the current county government with an elected executive and a seven-member council.

-Lakewood Mayor Ed FitzGerald is running to replace Frank Russo as auditor -- allegedly in the May 2010 primary, but he's really positioning himself in case Russo resigns or is forced out. (FitzGerald is sure a man in a hurry -- he's only been mayor for a year!)

PD to FBI: Quit stalling and bring him in!

The Plain Dealer is tired of waiting to see if the feds indict Jimmy Dimora. Its front-page article today, "204 days & counting: Is probe lagging?" asks why no charges have been filed yet.

It's a weak story. Its impatience reminds me a little of Louis Seltzer's infamous Cleveland Press headline about the Sam Sheppard case: "Quit Stalling And Bring Him In!"

OK, the PD, unlike Seltzer, gets someone from an activist group to say, "Charge him or move on." Still, the paper knows the feds aren't done investigating -- the Parma schools were hit with a subpoena just two weeks ago -- yet it suggests the feds could just charge Dimora with something (anything!) now and figure out the rest later: "If prosecutors do charge Dimora, they could file one or two charges soon and then follow up with additional charges, which is common."

The paper asks why the feds can't move as fast as they did in their rush to charge now-impeached Illinois governor and hair freak Rod Blagojevich. Yet the story quotes U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald's explanation that he charged Blagojevich to stop him "in the middle of ... a political corruption crime spree" -- that is, to keep him from selling off a U.S. Senate seat. There's just no evidence that Dimora and Co. are about to pull off any swindle that big.

Yes, I know county officials and voters are stuck in a very awkward position. Even though the FBI is investigating Dimora, he's still making decisions on big issues such as the Medical Mart. Because Dimora hasn't been charged with a crime, only the Republican Party and The Professor have called for him to go.

But consider how long Cleveland's last big corruption case took to unfold. In December 2002, the FBI caught East Cleveland Mayor Emmanuel Onunwor on tape asking political fixer Nate Gray, "Did Santa Claus bring anything?" Agents confronted Onunwor outside Gray's Shaker Square office and found bribe money on him in March 2003. That was the start of the "overt phase" of the Nate Gray investigation (as the feds call it).

But the FBI didn't rush its case in order to get Onunwor out of office. They indicted him in April 2004, a year later. He remained mayor until his conviction that August. Gray was found guilty in August 2005 -- or 2 1/2 years after the investigation became overt.

The county probe is more complicated. It includes work done on Dimora and Frank Russo's houses, Russo's housemate, his son, his private real estate company, tax assessments, the Ameritrust Tower, the juvenile justice center, two judges, several contractors, worker's comp deals across the suburbs, the county's hospital and public housing, alleged ex-mobsters, casino chips, Dimora's refrigerator, a photograph of a now-deceased county employee/former strip-club manager/former radio DJ, and a note about a mysterious "$20,000 payment." Dimora's attorney estimates the feds are poring over 500,000 documents. Give them time!

Monday, February 16, 2009

Council cash

Local pols have filed their 2008 campaign finance reports, and Henry Gomez has dug through Cleveland City Council's at his City Hall blog.

Highlights: Martin Sweeney has $313,000 in the fund he controls as council president and $141,000 in his own campaign fund (as of Jan. 1). No wonder the coup plot against him failed. His rival Matt Zone has $19,500.

Joe Cimperman collected $53,000 at a September fundraiser. Dona Brady has $103,000 (what's she going to do with it?). Zack Reed "spent more than $10,000 on other campaigns, cell phone bills and hotel rooms for conferences."

Meanwhile, Mayor Frank Jackson has a $633,000 war chest, just in case anyone decides to run against him.

Friday, February 13, 2009

MMPI and the Mall 2, Forest City & Partnership 0

My final thoughts on yesterday's Medical Mart hearings: MMPI looked good. They made a strong case for the Mall as the best location for the project. They showed that they'd carefully studied all the possible sites, and thoroughly explained why they chose the Mall.

The Greater Cleveland Partnership and Forest City looked bad yesterday. MMPI found a way to make the Mall site work that the Partnership didn't see. Assuming MMPI's engineering studies hold up, it'll save Cleveland taxpayers a projected $111 million. That raises the question of why the Partnership's site panel members weren't better problem-solvers with the Mall site, and why they weren't more skeptical of the pricey, awkward Tower City site.

Forest City is going to try to undo this decision. But they'll face the challenge Chris Kennedy of MMPI posed to them yesterday: “If (you had a plan to) save $125 million for the city of Cleveland" -- really $111 million -- "you should have spoken up earlier."

When MMPI defended the Med Mart project itself, their case was pretty good, though you could see some weaknesses. The Med Mart is an untried concept that may prove very attractive to medical suppliers -- or it may not. Also, MMPI seems more focused on getting that trade-show business than winning back the convention business Cleveland has lost in the last several years. To succeed, they will have to do both.

Jimmy Dimora and Tim Hagan looked bad for two reasons. First, they didn't show up at the public forum, sending a clear message that they don't think they need to know what taxpayers think of the project.

Also, MMPI's thorough presentation proved the point that the commissioners were wrong to make their decision in closed executive session. What we heard yesterday was almost the same presentation that convinced them to choose the Mall site on Jan. 22. If the county had asked MMPI to make this presentation in public three weeks ago, it would have saved everyone a lot of arguing about closed meetings vs. open government.

Other takes on the hearings yesterday: The Plain Dealer's Steven Litt is impressed with the case for the Mall site. Roldo is still unimpressed with the Medical Mart deal. Cleveland councilman Brian Cummins has lots of questions. County administrator Jim McCafferty corrects two mistakes in the Plain Dealer's otherwise sharp and important story about the county's tentative agreement with MMPI.

Feagler and Friends this weekend

I'll be appearing on WVIZ-TV's "Feagler and Friends" show this weekend, talking about Med Mart, the economic stimulus package, and (this is a little off my beat) Alex Rodriguez using steroids.

The show runs at 8:30 p.m. tonight and 11:30 a.m. Sunday.

Meanwhile, here's the link to me and lots of Plain Dealer people (and an Akron guy) talking on WCPN's Reporters' Roundtable yesterday morning.

County moving? Just a little

Yesterday, I wanted to know if county offices would have to move to make room for MMPI's Med Mart plan.

I saw that the county administration building is still standing in MMPI's maps of the Med Mart site, but two smaller buildings next door, where the county leases space, are gone.

So I asked Jim McCafferty, the county administrator, if MMPI wants to tear down the county annex and Chicago Title Building to make room for the Med Mart.

Yes, he said. McCafferty says the county will either move the departments from the two buildings into existing county space, or it will rent new space.

New construction isn't planned. "There’s a lot of vacant office space downtown," he said.

This is good news. It spares the town another big argument about whether to build a new county administration building. In my June article about the Ameritrust Tower, I showed that a new county building would add millions of dollars a year to the cost of government -- at a time the county faces serious budget cuts.

MMPI did say the county administration building could be a site for future expansion. But it could also expand to the north, over the bluff and toward the lake. That at least puts the county building issue off for the future.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Tower City supporters push back

Forest City executive David LaRue and convention planner Bruce Harris pushed back against MMPI’s choice of the Mall site at the public forum this afternoon.

Harris made the same argument he’s made in the Plain Dealer: that the Tower City site is a better place to put the convention center because of Cleveland’s tough winters. Tower City’s “connectivity” -- connections to hotels and the Rapid line to the airport -- will help Cleveland compete with its cold-weather Midwestern neighbors. Right now, “Indianapolis eats up everybody because of its connectivity,” he said.

Harris asked if MMPI had looked at his survey of convention planners, who said staying indoors was really important to them in choosing a winter convention site. But Chris Kennedy of MMPI was ready for him.

“Let’s look at what Bruce is quoting here,” Kennedy said. He displayed Harris’ survey on screen and attacked it as full of leading questions: “You developed those answers for your own good.”

LaRue said angrily that Forest City had had no chance to make a counter-proposal based on the project’s new “scope.” He claimed the company could get close to the Mall site price of $425 million. MMPI execs seemed skeptical; almost all the Tower City price estimates have been above $500 million.

“I don’t think it’s our obligation to knock on your door,” Kennedy replied. “If (you had a plan to) save $125 million for city of Cleveland, you should have spoken up earlier. But we will be open to a better solution at any time until the first shovel is in the ground.”

Jones speaks at Med Mart meeting

One of the three county commissioners just talked briefly after MMPI's presentation at the library: Peter Lawson Jones.

He assured that the county will share all the project's plans with the public, since taxpayers are paying for 90 percent of it.

"The public is absolutely entitled to know, to participate at the highest level at every juncture, and we will make sure that that is indeed the case," Jones said.

Good to hear. But who does Jones mean by "we"?

No surprise: his colleagues Tim Hagan and Jimmy Dimora are nowhere to be seen today. They were also AWOL during the public forums Jones hosted about the Med Mart in the summer.

Do Hagan and Dimora think public forums are pointless? Do they not care what the taxpayers think? How cynical.

What MMPI really thinks of Wolstein's Flats site

MMPI's Myron Maurer just told the library crowd that the convention center/Medical Mart site Scott Wolstein propsed in the Flats would actually cost $445 to $458 million, not the under-$400 million cost reported earlier this week.

That makes it more expensive than the Mall site.

His Powerpoint also gave us a map showing how the Flats site is really far from all the downtown hotels.

I think that means the Plain Dealer's (thinly sourced) report that the Flats is the new second-choice site was false.

Council cross-examines

Some Cleveland city councilpeople are way better cross-examiners than others, their Med Mart hearing today showed.

Joe Cimperman did the best job, getting these important answers out of Chris Kennedy of MMPI:

-If engineers find a new convention center can’t be built on the old one’s foundation, raising the cost, MMPI will take another look at the Mall, Tower City, and Flats site proposals. (That contradicts this.)

-Property taxes aren’t figured into MMPI’s costs. Since the odd county-MMPI partnership leaves the developer owning the convention center and Mart for 20 years, they’re going to need a tax abatement.

-Kennedy thinks our Med Mart can beat out the one proposed for New York by getting to market faster. MMPI already has relationships with 125 manufacturers in the health-care marketplace, he says, and no one else does.

-MMPI is still likely to cover any cost overruns, though that’s part of the ongoing negotiations with the county. “I don’t see a scenario where the city and county are exposing themselves,” Kennedy said.

The least effective questioner was Ken Johnson, who sounded slow and confused. He kept asking how MMPI decided it would cost $17 million to buy the Mall land from the city. “For the fourth time, sir: the Greater Cleveland Partnership study,” an exasperated Kennedy answered.

Johnson joked Kennedy needed to be patient with the committee because, “We’re just councilmen.”

Kennedy didn’t buy the self-deprecation. “Mr. Johnson, I’m looking at the only guy in this room who’s got a building named after him.” (It's a city rec center near Shaker Square.)

Ooooh! buzzed the crowd.

Empty chairs

The Med Mart forum at the library has started, with empty chairs on stage for the county commissioners.

County Administrator Jim McCafferty got the meeting started instead. He and Chris Kennedy of MMPI made a point of saying that today's presentation is the same one MMPI gave to the county commissioners, the studies that convinced them to build the project on the Mall.

"We have not told multiple stories to multiple parties," Kennedy said. "This is not a game of chess here, where we’re two steps ahead of anybody else. It's a process which anyone can comment on. This process is designed to allow many more people to have input into the design and construction."

Kennedy also explained why MMPI rejected the Greater Cleveland Partnership's recommendation to build the project at Tower City for $536 million. "The price tag was extraordinarily high," he said. "Two or 3 or 4 or 5 different taxes would’ve have had to be raised to support it."

MMPI says it can build on the Mall for $425 million.

*Update: Peter Lawson Jones arrived at the meeting later. See this post.

The Mall vs. Tower City

The most interesting part of Cleveland city council’s Med Mart hearing was how hard MMPI worked to try to save money at the Forest City and Mall sites.

They chose to build on the Mall because they figured out a way to fit what they needed on the existing convention center’s foundation. They say they can get some conferences and trade shows into a renovated Public Auditorium within a year. Meanwhile, they’ll tear off the top of Mall B, start over from the foundation, and build a better convention center in three years. To replace the outdated, gloomy current convention center, with columns 30 feet apart and 22 foot ceilings, they’ll get rid of the parking above the convention hall and build a 30-foot ceiling, with columns 90 feet apart. Big glass windows to the north will look out on the lake.

The Medical Mart will be on St. Clair, between the Marriott and the county administration building. The county won’t have to move anytime soon, but MMPI has that land in mind as a place it might expand later. The Mall landscape will be rebuilt just a little higher, but not much. No plans yet to bridge the cliff to create easier access to the Amtrak station or the Rock Hall. Chris Kennedy of Medical Mart says connections to the north were “not part of our scope” but worth “a public dialogue” (meaning MMPI won’t pay for it).

Sounds like MMPI tried a lot harder to make the Mall site work than the Partnership did -- and they saw the obvious problems with the Tower City site, which the Partnership did not.

The developer went through five designs for a mart and center at Tower City and four at the Mall, trying to cut costs. They knew the county couldn’t afford the Greater Cleveland Partnership’s recommendation to build at Tower City for $538 million. So they took the Forest City/Partnership idea apart piece by piece.

First they figured out that Forest City’s supposedly generous offer of space in the Higbee Building for the Medical Mart would have obligated them to $3 million a year in operating costs. So they looked at including the Medical Mart in the new convention building south of Huron Road. They studied whether to build the main trade show hall and its truck docks under Huron (which meant tearing out a bunch of the parking structure and girders that hold up the road) or to put the main hall next to Huron Road (which made the center too small). They couldn’t figure out a way to make it big enough and still affordable.

The Forest City site was always awkward: wedged on a slope, tall and thin, with the exhibit hall and truck docks hanging in the air. Forest City convinced a panel of friendly local CEOs that it could work, but they couldn’t convince MMPI, which is going to put its money on the line. The business community probably isn’t done complaining, but MMPI made a good case today why the Mall is the best place to build.

The Case for the Med Mart

More than 100 people stuffed themselves into a too-small room in City Hall today, jamming the doorways. Council members from Martin Sweeney to Joe Cimperman to Sabra Pierce Scott sat at the hearing table, all to hear MMPI make their case about why Cleveland should have a Medical Mart and why they want to build it under the downtown Mall.

The developer’s presentation about their business plan had a little new news since their last presentation in 2007. It’s clear that the Medical Mart is a gamble, one that might be a challenge to launch or sustain, but that could also pay off big.

“We’re introducing a new, better way for the medical industry to go to market,” said MMPI vice-president Mark Falanga. They want the country’s largest medical manufacturers to lease showrooms in the Mart, to show off their products to trade-show-goers. “We believe we will need to subsidize those showrooms heavily to get them to try something new,” Falanga said.

Falanga says MMPI's sales teams have approached 15 to 20 leading medical manufacturers, pitching the Med Mart concept. They show "great interest," he says, but "they're waiting for more detail." Same reaction when MMPI talks up the Mart at health trade shows. "Many of [the companies] participate in 20-25 trade shows a year. There's a tremendous cost to ship [their products] in and out." Having one place to exhibit them year-round could save them a lot of expense, Falanga says.

The developer resurrected its estimates about economic spinoff from the mart and convention center, numbers I think we heard in 2007. They project they’ll attract 60 trade shows and 100 conferences a year, with 4,000 attendees on average, spending an average of $1,100 each in Cleveland -- attracting direct spending of $330 million a year. If that’s true, the city would attract enough visitors’ spending in three years, $1 billion, to more than equal the 20 years of sales tax money that will pay for the project. (Update, Friday a.m. -- They also used a "multiplier" of 3 to estimate money circulating in town, bringing the project's estimated economic impact to $1 billion a year.)

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Author: Hagan & Co. are "the true cynics"

Charles Michener, the former New Yorker writer who's writing a book about how Cleveland can turn itself around, ripped into county leaders in his City Club talk today.

A lack of transparency around Cleveland's biggest public projects is one of the town's most serious problems, Michener argued. With the county's $400 million Medical Mart project and the port authority's $500 million port relocation, he argued, "Open discussion was sacrificed for closed-door deal-making."

The county commissioners have failed to answer basic questions about how the Medical Mart will be connected to the rest of downtown and the lakefront, Michener said. He brought up Tim Hagan's angry accusation that the Plain Dealer was "cynical" for asking questions about their site decision. The commissioners' reaction, Michener said, "reveals them as the true cynics."

Michener mentioned two other political situations that he thinks hold Cleveland back: the "homophobic reaction" to the city's new domestic-partner registry and political leaders' silence about racial tensions. "[Cleveland's] leaders don't confront race," he complained. He pointed to the tsunami of racist e-mails that the PD got last year in reaction to the assault on lawyer Kevin McDermott in Shaker Heights, and asked why political leaders didn't speak out about it.

My colleague Laura Crawford also covers Michener's talk in this post on Cleveland Magazine's main blog.

Med Mart: Tower City and Flats ruled out?

This Crain's story previews tomorrow's meetings about the Medical Mart and convention center.

{MMPI will tell the public the mall is the only location where the project can work -- Tower City and the Flats are out, Crain's says.} Update, Thu p.m. -- Not exactly. See MMPI's comment about a worst-case scenario here.

"The problems with the Tower City site were its topography, the difficulty of creating enough efficient loading dock space for exhibitors to move their equipment in and out and the need to relocate Tower City parking spaces..."

Med Mart: radio and live blogging tomorrow

I'll be on WCPN's Reporter's Roundtable tomorrow from 9:05 to 10 a.m., talking about the Medical Mart and other stuff in the news.

Then I'll head to City Hall to catch part of council's 10 a.m. meeting with MMPI, the Med Mart developer. I'll blog about it tomorrow, and live-blog if I can (wifi is spotty in City Hall).

I'll also live-blog from MMPI's public forum at 2 p.m. at the Cleveland Public Library.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Two Med Mart meetings Thursday

Looks like we'll get some answers about the Medical Mart and convention center on Thursday.

Representatives of MMPI, the developer, are speaking at two meetings downtown. We should learn more about why the developer wants to build on the downtown mall, not at Tower City.

The first is a meeting with Cleveland city council, at 10 a.m. Thursday in City Hall's room 217, the council committee room.

The next is a public forum in the Cleveland Public Library auditorium. MMPI will give a presentation about its plans. It's at 2 p.m. (I've now confirmed this).

{I heard about the second meeting from the county administrator's office. But I also heard that the county commissioners won't be at the meeting. You might expect them to hold a forum to explain their $400+ million decision to the taxpayers. Guess again.} -- Update, Wed. p.m.: The county's press release says the "county commissioners will host" MMPI's presentation. Sounds like they'll be there, but we'll see if they answer questions or leave that to MMPI.

I wrote this on Jan. 25: The Plain Dealer and other citizens who want this decision explained clearly will probably not get what they want. Hagan and Dimora are usually not inclined to do this. ... If they act like they acted with the Ameritrust Tower issue, they're more likely to rant at the Plain Dealer at Thursday's commissioners meeting.

Sure enough, when I got back from vacation, I flipped through the week's papers and found this big headline from Feb. 4:

Defends choice of mall site for med mart

You can tell the PD loves a fight:

Cuyahoga County Commissioner Tim Hagan lambasted the news media -- especially The Plain Dealer -- on Tuesday for questioning the county's abrupt convention-center site selection.

Hagan began his harangue by insisting it is "nonsense" to refer to the closed-door meetings that preceded the decision announcement as "secret meetings."

Those private, closed-to-the-public meetings were "executive sessions" allowable by law and held "under the instruction of our counsel," Hagan said.

Yes, the commissioners can go into closed session to discuss real estate negotiations -- if "premature disclosure of information would give an unfair competitive or bargaining advantage to a ... private interest." But the commissioners have already pre-empted the negotiations by naming their choice and their price!

Next time the commissioners meet in executive session with MMPI, just remember: it's not a secret meeting -- it's just that the public can't get in!

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Professor: Back from sabbatical

Class is in session again at Political Science 216. The Professor, my favorite local politics blogger, has returned from sabbatical and started his new semester with a new cause: recalling Jimmy Dimora.

Here's my profile of the Professor from the fall.