Cleveland Designs a Civic Report Card

August 08, 1994|By NEAL R. PEIRCE

Cleveland is often called ''Comeback City'' for its dazzling recovery from the ignominy of the '60s and '70s, when the phenols and oils in the slimy Cuyahoga River actually caught on fire, when the city actually defaulted on its bond payments.

Since those bitter days the waterfront and downtown have recovered smartly. Cleveland can claim new parks, thriving culture, repaired infrastructure, reformed finances and a hyperactive public-relations effort. It has received no fewer than five All-America City awards. Now there's active effort to promote the competitiveness of the entire seven-county Cleveland citistate.

Critics have noted flaws: continuing deep inner-city destitution, outward population flight, big public subsidies for stadiums and other establishment-backed downtown projects.

But Cleveland's citizen leaders, to their credit, are starting a process of tough and public self-examination that may set a standard for citistates coast to coast.

The process is called ''Rating the Region.'' It's the areawide, civic equivalent of the ''benchmarking,'' or comparative assessment, aggressive corporations are using to gauge critical elements of their productivity and effectiveness against competitor firms.

The 98-year-old Citizens League of Greater Cleveland was able to pick up some interesting allies to launch ''Rating the Region.'' Predictably, the Cleveland and Gund Foundations, perennial and enthusiastic supporters of imaginative Cleveland projects, were on board.

But so was BP America -- Cleveland's biggest corporate player. The firm not only contributed $80,000 to ''Rating the Region'' but provided expertise on how it uses benchmarking to gauge performance of its subsidiary firms.

A key piece of BP America's counsel was to take time and immense care picking measures. So the Citizens League set up a steering committee, held a public conference, surveyed 350 Cuyahoga County residents by phone and considered some 300 factors before boiling its survey down to 89 verifiable, relevant indicators. Wherever possible, outcomes -- not just dollars spent -- were measured.

Identical data were then collected for 13 other U.S. citistates, ranging from Detroit to Charlotte, Seattle to St. Louis.

Some results were complimentary. The Cleveland region ranked first among the 14, for example, on cultural amenities and leisure activity -- orchestra endowments, attendance at sporting events, library circulation rates, park acreage and the like.

But on some measures -- to the consternation of many of Cleveland's inveterate boosters -- the region did abysmally. Only the Detroit region ranked worse, for example, on economic vitality and community prosperity -- such as median household income, employment growth and the gap between city and suburban per-capita income.

There was a lot for the Cleveland region to learn about itself: that it ranks well in crime rates but poorly in environmental quality, high in health care but poorly in producing a college-educated work force.

President Robert Gillespie of KeyCorp commented on the benchmark results: ''We have come from being a city of despair to one that's average. The question now is whether we can do the really hard work to do better than average.''

But the point of benchmarking goes way beyond giving Clevelanders an idea of how they stand comparatively, notes Janis Purdy, the Citizens League executive director. It's also to let the region think smartly and strategically -- to see what the top citistates are doing that Cleveland is not, and then decide how the region's governments, foundations and businesses can fine-tune their performance to do better in the future.

Corporations, Ms. Purdy notes, are actually hindered by antitrust laws in comparing performance intimately. But not so citistates. Cleveland leaders, she observes, are free to, and do, work openly and collaboratively with their counterparts in Atlanta, Minneapolis, Pittsburgh or elsewhere.

When applied to citistates, the idea of ''competition'' may be overworked and inaccurate. One area's success needn't spell decline in another. There is competition occasionally to attract a particular corporation or sports team.

But in overall trade, downtown and economic expansion, the game ought to be ''win-win'' as more wealth and competence are built and the cumulative strength of American citistates rises in the global economy.

To play the game, however, players need to know what their smart counterparts are doing across the continent. They need to have some notion of where they stand, where they're doing well, where they're lagging, and where they want to go. By sidetracking its hype long enough to be candid about strengths and weaknesses, Cleveland has set the stage for its next steps and set a standard for smart citistates coast to coast.

Neal R. Peirce writes a column on state and urban affairs.

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