Monday, July 14, 2014

Wine, Gold, and Green: Harnessing LeBron's Economic Impact

On Friday, July 11, LeBron James made everything right in the world again. Or, at least, he made everything right again in Northeast Ohio. The anger, frustration and hurt feelings suddenly vanished. The sky suddenly was bluer, the air cleaner, and the overall psyche of the city finally feels a true sense of optimism.

To be able to speak for everyone in Northeast Ohio would be disingenuous at best, arrogant at worst, so all I can do is offer an opinion from the perspective of a 20something professional who will likely someday be faced with the same choice LeBron had to make: to stay or go. You see the writing on the wall and you get upset because you alone can't make a significant enough impact to fix the nonsense around you.

Granted, I am not a professional athlete, nor do I have a celebrity status in Northeast Ohio. If I left, the only people affected would be friends and family. But, LeBron decided to do what may young professionals have done: leave for greener pastures. The circumstances for LeBron were different: in Cleveland, he still would have received a max salary, endorsements and (maybe) the ability to pursue championships in Cleveland. The average 20something professional isn't afforded that luxury. In order to maximize earning potential, professional potential and social status, sometimes the only option for many of us who grew up in Northeast Ohio is to leave.

I have been, and will continue to be very critical of Northeast Ohio's economic development and supposed "rebirth." I don't feel it's happening fast enough, or with the proper level of investment in order to be considered a true comeback city. I say this even with the recent news that the Republican National Convention will call Cleveland home for 2016. There is still a defiant belief among Northeast Ohio's cheerleaders that we have arrived. The fact is, we haven't. There is still a metric ton of work to be done.

I say that as someone who doesn't WANT to leave for greener economic pastures, feels like they HAVE to leave in order to achieve my professional and financial goals. When you compare Cleveland's supposed "rebirth" to the emergence of other cities such as Columbus, Charlotte, Dallas, Atlanta, Denver, so on and so forth, it's really not even close: other areas provide more opportunity for young professionals. However, there is finally hope.

"I feel my calling here goes above basketball. I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from. I want kids in Northeast Ohio, like the hundreds of Akron third-graders I sponsor through my foundation, to realize that there’s no better place to grow up. Maybe some of them will come home after college and start a family or open a business. That would make me smile. Our community, which has struggled so much, needs all the talent it can get." - LeBron James

Assuming LeBron means everything he says, that's a powerful message. In order for Northeast Ohio and the Midwest in general to rebound from economic loss we must  have enough people pouring enough investment money into businesses in the region. Sometimes it takes a catalyst for real hope to emerge, and it requires billions of dollars collectively invested in order to spawn a real comeback (see: Dan Gilbert's multiple ventures in the Detroit and Cleveland areas). Such a project is bigger than anything you or I can achieve, because the cost is more than the several thousand dollars a middle class individual can invest alone. (of course, we can crowd source investments, as I stated a few months ago, but such a project still needs leaders with a vision and plan)

LeBron's economic impact as a basketball player is estimated to be $80-100 million annually to Cleveland, but his potential long-term impact as a businessman can be so much more. Who knows what business plans LeBron and his team have for Northeast Ohio. LRMR may only be the beginning. Perhaps other businesspeople in the area can harness the additional downtown traffic for further growth. Maybe it's time to build Phase 2 of the Casino (complete with the dining, retail and overall upscale appearance the current casino lacks), more housing, new public schools, more well lit areas, more power washed buildings, Public Square's beautification project, etc. Our "T-shirt economy" is a nice story, but it's not enough. We need more. Maybe, just maybe, other wealthy individuals who grew up here and left the area to achieve their financial dreams will be inspired to invest in Northeast Ohio.

Between the RNC and LeBron coming home, perhaps a true rebirth for Northeast Ohio is on the horizon.

Here's hoping we can harness the gift we've been given, and back up the narrative Cleveland's cheerleaders have been preaching with real results.

As LeBron said: "In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given, everything is earned." It's time to earn our rebirth, and finally we may have the momentum to do it.