Issue: January/February 2011
David Gilbert has created a winner as the head of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission. But as the new CEO of Positively Cleveland, he’ll have an even bigger stage to show he’s got game.
There may be no bigger booster of Cleveland than David Gilbert. The 43-year-old Cleveland Heights High graduate, Greater Cleveland Sports Commission chief executive and soon-to-be head of the city’s convention and visitors bureau exudes a confidence for Northeast Ohio’s future that few can match.
To him the near-term is a chance to capitalize upon the legacy of Cleveland’s heyday, seize the upcoming boom in downtown development and launch into a new period of prosperity.
“We have the opportunity to enter into a new renaissance time for Cleveland,” Gilbert says.
A bold proclamation, perhaps. Years of high unemployment, governmental upheaval and general stagnation — all somewhat masked by the excitement of the LeBron James era — derailed the city’s last uphill push. But a wave of big projects has promised to put Cleveland back on track, Gilbert says.
After a decade of urban redevelopment in the 1990s, downtown is poised for its first substantial additions in years. The $465 million convention center and Medical Mart is scheduled to open in 2013, a $600 million casino at Huron Road and Ontario Street is on its way, and the Flats’ East Bank has an appointment for a $275 million facelift.
This month Gilbert takes the reins of Positively Cleveland, the convention and visitors bureau, as the nonprofit organization melds with its sports-focused cousin.
During his 11-year tenure leading the Sports Commission, the group has lured more than 100 events to the city. There have been tournaments in tae kwon do, synchronized swimming and jump rope. There was the 2004 International Children’s Games, 2007’s NCAA Women’s Final Four and the Gravity Games, which was televised from downtown’s waterfront for three years starting in 2002.
Now Gilbert’s groups must transfer tactics honed on tournament organizers and athletic organizations to sell Cleveland to meeting planners, medical professionals and tourists.
IB: What does the Sport Commission’s success say about Cleveland?
The Sports Commission has become an absolute leader in our industry by any measure of how sports commissions are measured. It’s a real strong signal that we’re winning, and Cleveland absolutely can win in anything it sets out to do. Any time we bid on an event, we believe in our head and in our heart that that event will be coming to Cleveland. And if they choose someone else, whoever owns that event made a mistake.
IB: There’s marketing involved in filling the convention center. What about the casino?
The casino itself will be a driver of visitors to the community no matter what Positively Cleveland or what the Sports Commission do. Hopefully we can take those visitors and make sure once they step out of the casino that they’re spending more time and money in our community. We’re very confident that Dan Gilbert is going to do it right. We think he is going to develop the finest urban casino in the country.
IB: What’s your take on Dan Gilbert’s letter to fans after LeBron’s departure?
While he’s not a Clevelander, what Dan Gilbert has invested in this community has meant a lot. I look at a letter like that, and obviously it’s somebody who’s very passionate about this community speaking his mind. It’s hard to say what non-Clevelanders thought about it; I read all the same stuff that other people did. ... But I, for one, appreciated his defending our community.
IB: Do you think Cleveland gets a fair shake outside Ohio?
Not at all. It’s not as bad as it was. But I think that we still do have to unfairly defend ourselves.
IB: Why do sports matter to us so much in Cleveland?
Cleveland, unfortunately and largely unfairly, has been the subject of so many jokes for decades, and Cleveland has become a very defensive community because of that. The sports teams are just a manifestation of that. We take it personally, and we see it in many ways as the national public face of our community.
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