Frank Jackson would like you to know that he has not changed.
The mayor of Cleveland has heard the latest buzz about him: Six years after taking office, he’s finally gone from quiet, caretaker mayor to aggressive, visionary mayor. It bugs him.
“I’m no different today than I was then,” Jackson says. “It’s just that people see me different, because they’re looking at these things, and they say, ‘Oh, the mayor has come up with ideas!’ ”
He’s talking about his plans, announced this fall, to develop the waterfront and close Public Square to traffic, creating a single park. They’ve generated momentum around the mayor, a sensation many Clevelanders are not used to. They’d grown accustomed to Jackson’s low-key governing style, built on a work ethic, not press conferences.
“People [asked], ‘The mayor, what is he doing?’ I’m working. I’m working! ‘What is he working on?’ What do you see popping up out of the ground? That’s what I was working on!”
Jackson is referring to the Flats East Bank project, now rising near the Warehouse District. And the convention center, slowly taking shape in the canyon next to Public Hall. He’s also talking about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony this April, the Senior Games in 2013, the Gay Games in 2014.
Jackson’s Public Square move is years in the making, and it didn’t start as his idea. Urban advocates have long been pushing to remake the square to embrace parks more than roads, pedestrians and bicyclists more than buses and cars.
“It’s not a friendly place,” Jackson says of the square. “People walk through it. They don’t spend time there, unless you’re homeless. … How do we create this space that people want to spend some time in?”
By adopting the urbanists’ arguments, Jackson’s doing what leaders do: He’s picking up an idea that’s gaining traction and opening new possibilities by getting behind something once thought to be off-limits.
On the waterfront, Jackson envisions a new neighborhood north of Cleveland Browns Stadium, an improved North Coast Harbor and an office park near Burke Lakefront Airport, all linked to downtown by a giant pedestrian bridge over the Shoreway. He portrays the plan as very practical; he’s discarded the expensive ideas of moving the port and closing Burke and resolved questions such as site control. “All we have to focus on now is the implementation,” he says, “which will mean money and partnerships.”
Money, of course, is the ultimate test of practicality. The lakefront plan’s 51 pages of maps and designs include not a single dollar figure. Jackson estimates his ambitions for remaking downtown — from Public Square to the Malls to North Coast Harbor — will cost about $160 million. He hopes downtown stakeholders and private developers will help pay the bill. In fact, the lakefront plan is best understood as a marketing tool to convince developers to invest there.
The square and lakefront announcements capped a good year for Jackson. His idealistic sustainability summits are bearing practical fruit, he argues: The city launched the Healthy Cleveland Initiative in 2011, a campaign against obesity, smoking and inactivity.
Companies are bringing jobs downtown: nearly 400 in Rosetta’s new Euclid Avenue offices, more than 150 MCPc employees in The Plain Dealer building, up to 1,000 more coming when AmTrust Financial Services opens a Superior Avenue office.
Jackson says his fiscal prudence at City Hall has improved Cleveland’s business climate. “They’re making these investments when other people are running from places,” he argues, “because we’ve created an environment of certainty and confidence.”
Perennial conflicts still limit the mayor’s power. Jackson’s relations with Cleveland firefighters are at an all-time low; a recent audit uncovered apparent payroll abuses and left him furious. He wants to institute merit pay and new seniority rules for Cleveland teachers, but neither the union nor the state legislature have been cooperative.
“I know people have talked about, ‘Why doesn’t the mayor use the bully pulpit more?’ ” Those critics, Jackson says slyly, “were critical because they thought I ought to use it for them.
“But I do use it for the schools. I do use it for the lakefront, for the square. I do use it for sustainability. And I guess the bully pulpit of the mayor’s office in those areas wasn’t considered as relevant. But now it seems to be.
“Because I must be a new person, they tell me. I must be a new person.”