"Find Those People and Get Them to the Table": Lessons on Economic Development from Cleveland's Tracey Nichols

Job creation in Rust Belt cities is no easy task. But Cleveland’s director of economic development, Tracey Nichols, has focused on the city’s existing strengths and assets, along with Mayor Frank Jackson and others, rather than solely mourning the loss of manufacturing and industrial jobs.

In 2005, the city joined forces with the Cleveland Foundation, and anchor institutions such as local universities and hospitals, to form the Greater University Circle Initiative, a collaborative redevelopment initiative to improve economic opportunities for local residents while strengthening the region’s economy. More than a decade in, this anchor-focused approach has achieved impressive impacts: in 2013, the institutions collectively hired 539 local residents from low-income communities.

America’s Tomorrow spoke with Nichols about economic development wins and the power of hiring local.

Q: Why has Cleveland been so successful at community development strategies involving anchor institutions?

A:  One of the things that has made Cleveland very successful is the conveners that have come to the table, including Mayor Frank Jackson and Ron Richard from the Cleveland Foundation. It’s great to have the top people at the table—because they really help pass down the policies and initiatives — but we also needed a second level of individuals who are top level staff of their organizations, like others from the City of Cleveland and the various anchor institutions, and that’s helped us a lot.

In the beginning, it was very difficult for people in the neighborhood to get jobs at these institutions. One of the challenges was that you had to have a computer in order to apply. That was daunting for some, and others just didn’t have computers. So we set up times when people could come and fill out applications and there was someone there to help you. Then, the university hospitals started brainstorming and came up with a program called Step Up. In that program, people who were in entry-level jobs are mentored to take next-level jobs.  And when people move up, they get more money, more responsibility, more of a sense of accomplishment. They’re retaining people, which is fantastic.

Q: How does the upcoming Republican National Convention factor into the opportunities that are being created for Cleveland’s low-income residents?

A:  Well, I think that all of us are hoping that some of the stories of our successes will be noticed by what’s estimated as 20,000 media personnel who will be in town for the RNC.

We’ve also got a lot of new hotels and restaurants that are coming online. What’s exciting to us is that we have something called the Community Benefits Program. One of the things that’s required is that these businesses sign a workforce development agreement requires them to go through our Ohio Means Jobs portal, a database of all of the people who are not working in the city of Cleveland. [We are especially doing this] for large hospitality-type functions. What’s more important to us than temporary jobs are those that are going to be there after the Republican National Convention.

Q:  How have you formalized the process to ensure that this work of creating economic opportunity specifically benefits people of color and women in the city?

A:  We’re hiring so that the people who need jobs most, get jobs first. [In addition to the workforce development agreement] that helps to match unemployed residents to job opportunities, we have the Resident Employment Law, which requires construction projects of more than $100,000 hire Cleveland residents to perform 20 percent of all construction hours. Four percent of construction hours must be performed by low-income residents. So this gives people an opportunity to get training and get some hours under their belt in the construction industry.

Q:  How does a city like Cleveland balance the work of creating growth downtown with the kind of work that you do to help neighborhoods?

A:  Well, I think that it comes from the top down. Mayor Jackson tells us all the time that our job is to help the least of us. So while we work on downtown projects and they’re glitzy and they’re big, the bottom line is, for my team, we find a lot more reward in working in neighborhoods where there are tough situations.

I had a group of six senior citizen ladies who came to me and said they had to take three buses to the grocery store. And they said, “It’s your job to get us a supermarket.” Their area had been hard hit in the housing crisis and lost a lot of houses. So they didn’t have the population or the median income to bring another Big Box in. We worked to bring in a developer and brought in a Save-A-Lot and a Mills Clothing Store. The six ladies were there at the opening, as well as every elected official from kingdom come. Sometimes that kind of catalyst can help change a neighborhood.

Q:  How can your work in Cleveland be replicated in other cities?

A:  A lot of times people say to me, “Well, there’s no one in my city government like you, Tracey.” And I keep trying to tell people there may not be the top person in your city government who cares very much about economic inclusion, but I guarantee you there is someone in your community or economic development department who cares this much about economic inclusion. It’s just a matter of finding that person and telling them what you need and letting them try to figure out how to help you, and getting them to the table.

I think that most people who want to become public servants want to help people. There are other people like me in just about every community and every place. Find those people and get them to the table, because they know how to use the tools and they’ll be able to use them in your community just like we do here.

[Ed. note: on May 11, 2016, the Ohio Legislature passed House Bill 180 and Senate Bill 152, which would prohibit Ohio cities from mandating geographically based hiring preferences for local construction projects. It is currently awaiting the signature of Ohio Governor John Kasich. In a letter to Governor Kasich, Mayor Jackson wrote, “Low-income workers, women, people with disabilities and people of color are vastly underrepresented in construction jobs, when compared to their overall participation in the workforce. This is a missed opportunity for connecting our citizens to quality jobs, especially given the wages and benefits associated with construction work."]


Alexis Stephens
Alexis Stephens