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Economy and Business

Design District in downtown Cleveland seeks to redesign the city's image
Synergy between the region's 40 consumer product companies and 100 design firms could result from a more visible design culture.

Vivian Goodman
Cleveland, a city with a proud industrial history, will never be what it used to be. It has to find a new identity if it's going to survive. This time, instead of real estate developers, bankers, and politicians, a couple of college professors are leading the way. One is an expert in urban studies. The other, an industrial designer. They're spearheading Cleveland's Design District. WKSU's Vivian Goodman reports it's a bid to transform a decaying part of downtown into a showplace for the best new consumer products, an engine for economic development, and a talent magnet for young designers:
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Cleveland State University economic guru Ned Hill envisions a new image for downtown Cleveland. He heads a team aiming to transform 28 blocks, from East 12th to East 36th streets, from Prospect to St. Clair, into a District of Design. The district would showcase the latest household appliances, toys, furniture, and fashions. Local companies such as Kraftmaid, Rubbermaid, Royal Appliance, Little Tykes, and Moen would invest in showrooms. "The argument we're making to the companies and they're agreeing with it, is that if we provide a better experience for that wholesale buyer it will make it easier for them to come here and do business with their companies" said Hill. He hopes that Cleveland would also benefit from company employees moving into the area, filling the neighborhood with retail, restaurants and bars, and young professionals. Plans include up to 16 floors of housing in the long-abandoned Cowell and Hubbard and Woolworth stores. The design district concept springs from Hill and Cleveland Institute of Art director of Industrial design, Dan Cuffaro. Cuffaro returned to Cleveland after leaving a top corporate design job in Boston five years ago and sees the Design District as an opportunity for his students and his city. "And I saw it as an opportunity to have design and industrial design play a role in the redevelopment of a community." First, the project needs an anchor tenant to commit to creating the first big showroom. That's expected by the end of the year. Possibilities include Kraftmaid Cabinetry, Hoover, or Moen. Hill says those firms already value northeast Ohio's heritage of industrial design. The hope is that a more visible design culture will create the same kind of synergy that gave the rubber industry its polymer bounce and that now has a Kent firm using liquid-crystal technology in fashions. Cleveland is offering low-cost financing for Design District building owners to turn their spaces into showrooms. Regional Development chief Chris Warren says once the build-out is complete, the city will convert 40 percent of the loans to grants. "We see this as a central part of our economic development strategy that necessarily needs to look at transition from an industrial-based heavy industry economy to a knowledge-based economy," Warren said. He acknowledged that earlier downtown investments like Tower City and the Galleria aren't thriving. He says that's due to people fleeing the city in the 1970s and '80s, and that the city still suffers the effects. He has no illusions about the Design District alone addressing poverty and economic decline. Warren said that the Design District "needs to be one answer among a thousand answers to the question of how we provide hope and opportunity for people that live in our town, and particularly young people." Downtown Councilman Joe Cimperman sees the Design District as part of trend drawing people back to the city. He notes that the Tower Press Building at 21st and Superior Avenue was ready to be condemned 10 years ago, but is now filled with artists and designers who live and work there. Cimperman says the studio space is ten times cheaper than in Manhattan or Chicago. "Every city sees its greatest curse as a blessing. We have vacant space. We have a lot of former manufacturing property that can now be used for companies who wish to move in here. ... While steel-making and other things have gone to other countries, these warehouses are filled with people who are creating computer technology, some of the best design, things that are being shipped across the world in terms of what people are using. It really goes to Cleveland is all about in the first place which is: we are where things get made." Ned Hill sees local jobs being created through the Design District in marketing, distribution, sales and service. "The largest pool of semiskilled and unskilled jobs in the entire region is in the center of Akron, center of Cleveland. And by building a residential base of people that are going to need services, consumer services. ... This is how we're going to be generating jobs that are going to make a difference to people who don't have lots of skills." Mark Chupp of Case Western Reserve University's Center on Urban Poverty and Community Development says any economic development for Cleveland should meet 4 goals: attracting business; developing workers; improving collaboration and efficiency; and racial and economic inclusion.
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