New Cleveland is rockin' Renaissance: With Indians hits abounding at Jacobs Field and musical ones rolling at the new Hall of Fame, the city has recast its image.

October 24, 1995|By Peter Schmuck | Peter Schmuck,SUN STAFF

CLEVELAND -- Somebody stole the drab gray skyline and replaced it with a bunch of shiny buildings and a sparkling new baseball stadium. That's the first thing that's different about Cleveland.

The other thing is the civic inferiority complex. Somebody stole that, too.

The "Mistake by the Lake" has been corrected. Cleveland, the butt of all bad-city humor for a generation, suddenly has become another glowing symbol of the promise of urban renaissance. The city even has developed a bit of an attitude.

It may not be the center of the universe -- everyone knows that distinction belongs to Baltimore -- but it recently became the home of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and it will be, for the next few days at least, the capital of the baseball world.

The Cleveland Indians have enjoyed a renaissance of their own. They have brought the World Series home for the first time in 41 years, and the denizens of this once-decaying metropolis will be celebrating long before Game 3 begins tonight at Jacobs Field.

"This city was down and out for so long," said Mel Rose, a Cleveland restaurateur who played a prominent role in the revitalization effort. "Now, everybody seems to have a positive attitude. They're proud of the Indians, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just opened. It's almost like a love affair, and the Indians are certainly the catalyst."

The Jake, as the locals affectionately call the new stadium, was not the beginning. The $3 billion civic facelift began nearly a decade ago, but the Gateway Sports Complex, which also includes the new Gund Arena, turned a dilapidated market district on the edge of downtown into a thriving civic center, and transformed the Indians from a struggling small-market franchise into one of baseball's richest clubs.

That prosperity has been reflected on the field, where the Indians won 100 games during the regular season and two playoff series to set up a World Series showdown with the Atlanta Braves.

That hasn't gone quite so well -- the Indians lost the first two games in Atlanta -- but it will take more than a couple of big ## Braves pitching performances to squelch the municipal momentum that has carried Cleveland back into the national spotlight.

Even before the Indians were ready for prime time, the city was becoming a popular convention site and, believe it or not, a tourist attraction. It has become particularly popular among travelers from Maryland, because of sharply discounted airfares that range as low as $38 round trip.

"We get people from all over the country," said Rose, whose popular Mel's Grill is just outside the ballpark. "We just had some people in here from Maui. They went to New York for some reason, and then they decided to come to Cleveland to see what they've been reading about."

Comparisons to Baltimore abound. The downtown was in decline until several large companies moved in and polished the skyline with shiny new structures. The seedy Cuyahoga Riverfront was transformed into a trendy nightclub district called "The Flats." The Lake Erie waterfront wasn't much either, but construction of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and a yet-to-be-completed Great Lakes Science Center are turning it into a bustling area locals hope will be much like Baltimore's Inner Harbor.

"When this all began, we didn't look at things and identify them singularly," said club executive Bob DiBiasio. "It wasn't about getting the Indians a new playground. This was done collectively and the rationale was, 'How can we make Cleveland better?' It wasn't just to get a new stadium. If that was the intention, then it wouldn't have gotten done. It happened because everyone came together -- the politicians, the businessmen and the community. They all wanted it to happen."

The current focus is on the Indians, of course, but the six-level tribute to rock 'n' roll, designed by world-renowned architect I. M. Pei, has played an equally important role in the rehabilitation of the city. The Sports Complex made Cleveland proud. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame made it hip.

"I think the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame sort of brought a broader focus to the comeback story of Cleveland, because of its reach," said Hall of Fame communications director Tim Moore. "It was the only project with truly international scope, and it has brought visitors from all over the world.

"The Hall of Fame was under construction before Gateway, but the Gateway project was the most visible of the projects. It has been at the core of the urban redevelopment, but it was not the genesis. There had already been a number of private [downtown] projects, but the Gateway Project was most visible because it was publicly supported and because the Indians are such a vital part of this community."

The only downbeat is a $21.5 million construction deficit that local officials are scrambling to cover to avoid an embarrassing confrontation with unpaid Gateway contractors. The problem is expected to be ironed out without tarnishing the Indians' long-awaited return to the World Series or inhibiting Cleveland's ongoing metropolitan facelift.

The civic comeback continues, even if the World Series might look to the rest of the country like the new Cleveland's crowning moment.

"I think it's more like our coming-out party," Moore said. "We've still got the Great Lakes Science Center under construction, and all this is leading up to the 200th birthday of the city next year. The Hall of Fame opened last month, and we've also gotten everyone's attention with the great success of the Indians. Next year will be a yearlong celebration. We just got a two-month head start on it."

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