CLEVELAND - Cleveland could become a thriving metropolitan area that showcases the utilities of its suburbs while becoming an international draw for education and business.
That is the vision of Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald, who laid out a long-term vision of change in his annual State of the County address Wednesday.
FitzGerald often got applause for proposals he made during his address at the Renaissance Hotel Cleveland in an address hosted by the City Club of Cleveland.
FitzGerald touted the amount of progress since Cuyahoga County's transition into a new form of government. The culture of corruption that resulted in the ongoing Cuyahoga County corruption investigation and federal trails, also lead to the elimination of three county commissioners, and FitzGerald's election into the new county executive position.
FitzGerald said he entered office at a time when the public trust in county government was at an all-time low, so he's made it a goal to try to restore the public trust and confidence in county leaders. FitzGerald said his vision is to develop Cuyahoga County into the premiere county government of America. He also said he expects the achievement of this goal to outlast his time in office.
He said Cuyahoga is suited now more than ever to capitalize on growth and development. FitzGerald cited the Greater Cleveland Aquarium just opening, the investment into the east bank of The Flats, new hotels being built, museums being revitalized, the plans for a Medical Mart, the new convention center and the upcoming opening of the Horseshoe Casino.
Fitzgerald hopes the actions in the last year and the promise of Cuyahoga County's future could be an antidote to the cynicism that many have formed.
"Every day it gets harder and harder for them to persist in their view that everything keeps getting worse." FitzGerald said, jokingly. "Only our professional sports teams provide them with support for their depressing view. And, no, I do not have a plan to address that problem."
But FitzGerald did present a 12-point plan to develop growth and community in Cuyahoga County while changing its image. Referencing Cuyahoga County's history, FitzGerald calls his plan for the county's future the Western Reserve Plan.
The first step involves implementing a practical strategy for county government. In a county with some 59 municipalities, FitzGerald said, "It wasn't that the wrong people were in charge of the county. No one was in charge of the county."
The county executive wants to consolidate certain local services, while letting cities retain individual rights and privileges.
"Over time, we will have the prospect of finally becoming a cohesive metropolitan area," he said.
The second point is to establish greater Cleveland for job growth, by making funds available through partnerships. FitzGerald noted, "I'm frequently asked, 'how are we going to bring back the Fortune 500 companies that used to exist here?' It's a great question, but it's the wrong question. They started here. We want to retain the businesses that we have. We also want to become a county that retains and expands our businesses, which will become the Fortune 500 companies of tomorrow."
The third point aims to develop a location-based economic development strategy, recognizing Cleveland as the economic center of Cuyahoga County.
"Cleveland is the county seat. It's truly the capital of this county," he said. He hopes to develop a world-class downtown image that match the downtown assets we already enjoy. This goal will focus on the area stretching from West 6th to Cleveland State University, spanning from Lakeshore to the Innerbelt Bridge.
The fourth goal aims to align public and private resources around human services needs. FitzGerald said one of the most important ways to start this goal is early intervention in social problems. For instance, in Cuyahoga's juvenile justice system alone, 56 percent of juvenile offenders will return to juvenile court before they turn 18. FitzGerald hopes intervention programs can reduce that recidivism.
The fifth point is a focus on education as a central factor in community success. FitzGerald hopes to improve the statistic that 71 percent of Cuyahoga County students graduate from high school.
"If you do not receive a quality education, you will in all likelihood spend the rest of your life in poverty," he said.
The sixth point is to create a health and wellness environment in Cuyahoga County that mirrors its image.
"The great irony is people from all over the world come here for our medical resources, but our residents' health doesn't match," FitzGerald said. Now, the county will launch the Pilot Health and Wellness Initiative, which will design wellness education programs and activities that make sense for individual communities. An oversight system will be established to keep track of the initiative's progress.
The seventh point focuses on creating an atmosphere of economic inclusion in economic development.
Fitzgerald wants to establish a system that doesn't accept nepotism of cronyism in business. He said Cuyahoga must also create a culture that welcomes immigration as a driving force for economic development. FitzGerald hopes Cuyahoga will become a destination that values education and takes young people's input seriously.
This lead to the eight point, which is to continue to develop Cleveland into a major metropolitan area. FitzGerald cited the variety of projects underway in the county that are generating buzz and piquing tourist interest, including the convention center, casino, and Flats development.
The ninth point is on financial foreclosure prevention. FitzGerald said years of foreclosure auctions left behind more than 11,000 abandoned properties, and Cuyahoga suburbs have nearly twice as many properties going into foreclosure than Cleveland does. FitzGerald said Cuyahoga will launch an initiative that attempts to keep owners in their houses when evicted and maintain market property value.
The 10th point is to honor the service of U.S. military veterans. Work is under way on a Cuyahoga County version of the G.I. Bill to place veterans to the front-line with programs tailored to the skills they acquired serving our country.
"We cannot control when we go to war or where we go to war, but we can commit to building a support system that honors our vets, not just with ceremonies and medals, but with jobs to honor their service to our country," FitzGerald said. He said the county has begun conversations with health care providers and sheriff's offices for veteran job placement.
The 11th point aims to protect the county with a county-wide public safety initiative. Fitzgerald said the safety of one community is linked to every other community in Cuyahoga County, and all cities must find a way to work together better for a unified goal of safety.
Lastly, the 12th point would create a culture within Cuyahoga County government that implements nationally recognized good government practices. To help accomplish this, FitzGerald has reached out to the private sector to help accomplish this goal. This last step also resulted in the creation of the Center for Excellence in Local Government, which relies on Cuyahoga's cities, college, and businesses to form a vision for the county and measure its performance on a continual basis.
Over the past two years, FitzGerald said he's tried to build this plan by restoring the public trust in Cuyahoga County government, and making it more transparent to residents.
"We have this very brief moment to do as much as we can as fast as we can," FitzGerald said. "We have t run as fast and far as we can while the race is still with us. We're going outpace the cynics, outrun the status quo."