Thursday, June 4, 2009

Downtown through Roldo's eyes

In this week's Cool Cleveland, Roldo Bartimole looks at downtown Cleveland as almost no one else can.

He walks and rides along Euclid Avenue, saddened to see the empty storefronts and the meager number of people on the street. Then he taps his 40 years of reporter's knowledge to see the scene in another way. He looks up at buildings restored with the help of public subsidies and tax abatements, recalls how many millions each one cost the taxpayers, and asks whether all that money has done any good.

Bartimole is Cleveland's original alternative journalist. His newsletter Point of View, which he published from 1968 to 2000 (now partially archived on, critiqued Cleveland's media and power elite long before alternative weeklies debuted here.

Most of his writing is very newsy, full of numbers and references to controversies of decades past. This one, though, is vivid like a good magazine piece, weaving observation and fact, past and present.

It's also a very clear statement of Roldo's ideology, which is still very influential in our alternative press and blogosphere. He's not just a left-liberal -- his take on Cleveland is a sort of frugal populism. Simply put, he is always against tax abatement and public subsidy of local development.

He writes:

I had lunch with Norm Krumholz, picking him up at CSU’s Urban Studies office. I mentioned the dismal state of downtown. “It’s your fault,” he said, not really meaning it. I knew he meant I had opposed every project in the downtown area. “What are you talking about? Everything I opposed was done. How could it be my fault?”

He looks at downtown and sees more than $660 million in taxpayer money spent.

All for what? A depressed and depressing downtown. The price hasn’t matched the expectations. ...

What is the answer? Private development done naturally to meet needs. You can’t force people to be where they don’t want to be, to do what they don’t want to do.

Plenty of people would argue with him. A lot have. A few weeks ago, Roldo took on some of his online critics in this column.

I tend to think tax abatement is sometimes necessary because Cleveland is not competing with other communities on a level playing field. It's hard to attract development downtown when there's no undeveloped land and property tax rates are lower elsewhere.

But even if you don't agree with Roldo's ideology, his work plays a role in town: he knows the hidden costs of all of Cleveland's big projects, and his questions help us evaluate if the next one is worth it.

1 comment:

John Ettorre said...

All nicely put, Eric. Roldo is a civic treasure, though appreciated by some more than others. That's why the Chicago Tribune once called him Cleveland's conscience.