Cleveland urban revival a better prize

November 08, 1995|By GREGORY KANE

At Monday's news conference announcing the Cleveland Browns were coming to Baltimore, police strung up yellow tape normally used to seal off a crime scene to keep us common folks from getting too close to the rich ones on the makeshift stage.

The symbolism should not be lost on you. Because, in a moral sense, a crime was committed Monday. The victims were the people of Cleveland. To put it bluntly: they wuz robbed.

After 49 years of showing devotion to its football team, Cleveland fans got the ultimate insult when they were told the repayment for their loyalty would be the loss of their beloved Browns. Perhaps the letters "NFL" should now stand for "Nice Fans Lose."

Sorry, Art Modell. But that's how I feel. I heard Mr. Modell's speech Monday. He sounded like a nice guy, a businessman who made the business deal that would maximize his profits. That's his prerogative. He's part of the NFL, which may also stand for "Need For Loot."

But here's something for Modell to think about: He bought the Browns in 1961. The franchise started in 1946. That means for 15 years the people of Cleveland supported the team, nurtured it and made it a viable entity. The Cleveland fans made it possible for a Cleveland Browns team to be around for Modell to buy.

While Governor Parris Glendening talked of the economic benefits of bringing the Browns to Baltimore, while Modell spoke glowingly of how the team will be "an integral part of the community both on and off the field," and while Mayor Kurt Schmoke erroneously claimed the Browns and the Colts were "charter members" of the NFL, several news cameras focused on Steve Smith.

Smith came to the affair dressed in attire that might seem incongruous to some. Bedecked in a Browns sweat shirt and cap, he also wore the jacket of the Baltimore Colts marching band. When Bob Irsay skulked out of Baltimore with the Colts franchise in March of 1984, Smith chose the Cleveland Browns as his favorite team shortly after.

"To keep the band together we went on the road," Smith recalled yesterday. The band played in Cleveland's Municipal Stadium at Browns' home games a couple of times.

"The way the people supported the team was a lot like the old days with the Colts," Smith said, adding that Cleveland was an attractive city that reminded him of Baltimore. For Smith, the Browns move to Baltimore is bittersweet: he's glad they're here, but feels sorry for Cleveland.

Like Smith, I became a Browns fan after the Colts left, for pretty much the same reasons. They had history, tradition and loyal fans. Cleveland was, like Baltimore, a solid, working-class city. But for me, the key word was "Cleveland," not Browns. So unlike Smith, I can't be glad the Browns are coming. Celebrating their leaving Cleveland would be like running off with a beloved brother's wife and feeling glad about it.

Mind you, Baltimore does need something from Cleveland. But it's not the football. It's some advice about the economic revitalization that has made Cleveland the envy of some American cities. A recent issue of Emerge magazine hailed Cleveland as a model of urban renewal, describing how the city has revitalized the Hough district, once an economically depressed neighborhood thought to be beyond hope.

Michael White, Cleveland's mayor, got local businesses to donate $92 million for the newly opened Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and persuaded local banks to commit billions of dollars for local economic development. Under White's administration, more new homes have been built than under any Cleveland mayor since Carl Stokes held office.

Throw in the new baseball stadium for the Indians, the new arena for the National Basketball Association Cavaliers and the rejuvenation of downtown Cleveland, and you can see why the city has gotten rave reviews. It's not that Kurt Schmoke and company aren't trying to do similar things here in Baltimore. Schmoke has rebuilt the Sandtown community and -- whatever else I think of him -- he is the guy that got the Bullets playing in the Baltimore Arena again, even if it's only for a few games a season.

But Michael White and Cleveland seem to be much more and are doing it better. At the very least, they deserve a chance to see if they can match the offer Baltimore and the state of Maryland made to Modell. I say we ship Modell and his Browns back and give Cleveland that chance.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

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