Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley considers running for mayor
by Bruce Checefsky
(Plain Press, April 2021) Cleveland City Council President Kevin Kelley is near the end of his two-month Neighborhood Listening Tour across the City of Cleveland. The tour, which began in February as a way to learn firsthand from community members about their immediate concerns and issues, is an exploratory event to help determine whether he should run for mayor of Cleveland. Kelley wants to find out how residents envision recovering from the social, physical, and economic impacts of COVID19, among other immediate and pressing issues.
“Cleveland has been hit hard by the pandemic, which has only compounded the social and economic challenges we already faced,” he said. “It’s time for us to forge a new path forward. The best way to start is by listening to Clevelanders and learning directly from them about what they need.”
Kelley has more than $500,000 on hand for the mayoral race, according to a recent campaign finance report filed at the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections. Non-profit executive Justin Bibb, who formally launched his campaign earlier the year, has $160,000 on hand. Dennis Kucinich has raised $51,000 while Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson has not said whether he plans to seek a fifth term.
Kelley’s plan for economic recovery includes examining sections of the city that have been especially hard hit by the COVID19 pandemic, one of the most inequitable recessions in history, according to him. While some residents are doing well financially, others have been devastated with marginalized communities excluded from mainstream social, economic, educational, and cultural life. Kelley believes city government can help.
“We need to focus on communities that have been hurt the most,” he said, adding, “we need to make sure that we have a strategy for community development for every ward in the city by working with the Community Development Corporations (CDCs) to create economic opportunities. While not every community has a highly functioning CDC, we need to replicate the success of those that have.”
Community Development Corporations are nonprofit, community-based organizations focused on revitalizing the areas in which they are located including low-income, underserved neighborhoods. CDCs are usually involved in economic development, sanitation, streetscaping, and neighborhood planning projects. Cleveland has roughly 30 CDCs, supporting neighborhoods as far as Collinwood to the east, Old Brooklyn to the south, and Hopkins and Kamm’s Corners to the west.
Kelley was elected to Cleveland City Council in 2005 and has been City Council President since 2014. He believes the best way to attract and support small businesses in marginalized neighborhoods, where food deserts persist and poverty is widespread, is through Community Development Corporations (CDC). Assessing the purchasing power of neighborhoods and attracting needed businesses is a local strategy best understood by the CDC.
Poverty and crime are core issues in the wide-open mayoral race. Cleveland has an estimated 30.8 percent of its residents living in poverty, over three times the national average. Most major urban study reports point to the lack of businesses and jobs in disadvantaged urban areas as a cause for increased crime, poverty, deterioration and decline of the inner city. From Kelley’s perspective as City Council President, civic and political leaders can’t rely alone on bringing new jobs to the city. He believes it’s the wrong approach.
“You can’t have a conversation about poverty without having a conversation about jobs. There are thousands of high paying jobs right now that are sitting empty waiting for skilled people to take them,” he said. “We have to stop waiting for the next big thing to fall from the sky.”
Kelley knows from his many years as Ward 13 Councilman, serving an area which includes Old Brooklyn and part of the Stockyard neighborhood, that economic opportunities and high paying jobs are waiting to be filled. While investment in the city neighborhoods has to be up scaled, it shouldn’t rely only on city government. The opportunity zones program is just one example of government creating pockets of investment in certain sections of the city while leaving others out of the process. He believes opportunity zones should be expanded to include poorer neighborhoods where investment has lagged far behind.
Opportunity CLE, a collaboration between the city of Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland Development Advisors, the Fund for Our Economic Future and the Cuyahoga Land Bank, launched its strategy for taking advantage of the federal “opportunity zone” program back in March 2016.
In Cuyahoga County, there are 48 opportunity zones in the city and 16 spread across Bedford Heights, Brook Park, Cleveland Heights, Euclid, Garfield Heights, Maple Heights, North Randall, Richmond Heights and Warrensville Heights. The 64 Cuyahoga County zones are grouped in 11 districts: Downtown Cleveland, W. 25th-MetroHealth Corridor, Health-Tech Corridor, Opportunity Corridor, Glenville-Rockefeller Park Innovation District, Euclid/Collinwood Industrial Corridor, Outer Belt Development District, Aerozone Innovation Hub, Cuyahoga County Airport District, Transportation Boulevard Development District and Caledonia Park District.
“We should expand the opportunity zones city wide,” Kelley said. “We need to encourage investment in all neighborhoods and basically show the world that these are good investments.”
Cleveland’s rise in violent crime has made national news, landing on the front page of the New York Times recently. Last year, the homicide rate was up 42 percent relative to the same period in 2019, as reported by police. Although it’s not clear what has caused a spike in violent crime, some possibilities include a weak economy, high unemployment rates, failing schools, and high child poverty. Kinsman, North Broadway, Central, Fairfax, and Union Miles Park are considered by many among the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city.
“We need to make sure the police are fully staffed including special units and detective squads. We need to bring back local police stations with a community relations division in every district and get to the root of crime.”
An escalating rise in property tax assessments has caused some people to sell their homes and leave the city. Residents in Tremont and Ohio City, and the near West Side where development is booming, have experienced as much as 200 to 600 percent increase in property taxes. Older residents on fixed incomes are being forced from their homes. Commercial and residential real estate tax abatement is a policy that has been very successful, in agreement with city council, but Kelley wants to see it updated. He thinks abatement is no longer necessary in neighborhoods where property taxes are doing well. Neighborhoods like Hough and Glenville have not seen the abatement policy effectively work.
“We need to develop a Longtime Owner Occupants Program (LOOP) to project people that helped build our neighborhoods. They’ve weathered the storm through good and bad times, and we can’t price them out.”
Kelley won’t commit to closing Burke Lakefront Airport, but he does support lakefront development. Recent engineering studies have shown that the western section of the airport near East 9th Street offers some development opportunities. Closing the airport will negatively impact Hopkins International Airport and, while he doesn’t believe we need all the regional airports, he believes Burke is important to the regional economy.
“We need to have a conversations about regional airports,” he said. “We can’t just turn over the 500 acres at Burke for development.”
Kelley is willing to let the consultants do their work and decide upon a plan of action when it comes to the West Side Market. Capitol and operational issues top the list of needs, in his view, in order to run a safe and efficient public market.
“We have to stop all the fits and starts, and pick one model to move forward with,” he said referring to several plans to turn to market over to non-profit management. “I want to hear what the consultants have to say.”
The unsung hero of the local economy is the burgeoning cultural and arts economy, in Kelley’s opinion, which includes museums and theaters, performing art venues, artist studios and small galleries.
“Artists need to be paid and put food on the table like everyone else,” he said.
Editor’s Note: Plain Press readers and candidates for public office are invited to contribute to creating a more progressive city. The newly created website “Lake Effects: Progressive thinking for the Cleveland we want” offers an opportunity for you to contribute your ideas. The site created by David Beach is now online at: lake-effects.org. “The goal of the site is to create a resource for citizens and candidates for Mayor and City Council that will provide a useful collection of issues and ideas while stimulating a discussion about what a progressive city can be like,” says David Beach.