Drew Carey

How to Repopulate Cleveland And Other Once-Great American Cities


No city can exist without people. Cleveland's population has declined from nearly 1 million in the 1950s to about 430,000. Many of these people have moved to nearby suburbs, causing city population density to decline from 11,400 people per square mile in 1960 to 6,200 ppsm in 2008. Given the host of problems, complicated business culture, failing public schools, and heavy tax burden that Cleveland carries, it is understandable that so many people have left the city over the past six decades.

Yet, Cleveland is not without hope. Indeed, the city has an advantage over other Rust Belt cities that never had a thriving urban culture. Cleveland residents already enjoy the kind of big-ticket entertainment options that you can only find in large cities. In addition to the Browns, Cavaliers, and Indians, as well as the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame, Cleveland has plenty to offer for those with a taste for high culture.

But these cultural amenities are not capable of attracting individuals back to the city. That's because it is economic vitality that drives population growth, not attractions. The orchestra, museums, and theaters in Cleveland are artifacts of an era when Cleveland was an industrial powerhouse and produced tons of cash. Today's Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame and sports complexes are a monument to the empty promises of Cleveland politicians. They were built with hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars through sweetheart deals that were developed during Cleveland's economic decline. These amenities are not the fruits of a vibrant economy. And while the Cavaliers provide a great entertainment option for visitors from the suburbs, you can't judge a city's health by the success of its basketball team.

[Article continues below video, "Bring the People Back: Reason Saves Cleveland With Drew Carey, Ep. 6"]

The keys to bringing back people to Cleveland lie with fixing education, encouraging economic growth through pro-business tax and regulatory policy, stabilizing city finances using privatization, and promoting a bottom-up development strategy.

Fixing the education system

The Cleveland Public School System should pursue a decentralized student-based budgeting system, where education funds are attached to each student and the students can take that money directly to the public school of their choice.

Key student-based budgeting principles that improve educational outcomes as well as the transparency and accountability of schools include funding that follows the child to the public school of their choice; per student funding that varies based on a child's educational needs, with special education students and others receiving larger amounts; and funding that arrives at individual schools in real dollars, not in numbers of teaching positions, staffing ratios, or as salary averages.

Cleveland public schools should also promote charter school models and take a hard line with struggling institutions: Close failing schools. Open new schools. Replicate great schools. Repeat as needed. Using the power of competition will drive success in education. And the better the school system, the more people will want to move back into the city.

Encouraging economic growth through pro-business city tax and regulatory policies

Cities with heavy tax burdens put themselves at a competitive disadvantage with more relaxed localities. Taxes always create disincentives for business growth and expansion. Cities with simple, limited tax structures are much more successful at encouraging business development. Local leaders should be aware of how various taxes can weigh down economic growth.

Entrepreneurism is a vital part to economic growth in cities. Local leaders should work to limit red tape, simplify the regulatory process, and do everything possible to create a hospitable licensing climate for business.

Excessive business taxes, local sales taxes, property taxes, and fees are all more likely to drive people out of the city than build a sustainable tax base. If Cleveland wants to bring people back, it needs to build an environment that encourages business development.

Stabilizing the city's finances and boosting economic growth through privatization

The more fiscally sound a city is, the more attractive it will be to residents. Fiscal stability means no threats of tax increase nor the fear that social services will be cut back. One way Cleveland can look to stabilize its finances and "right-size" government is to leverage the many opportunities that outsourcing brings.

Cleveland may find greater economies of scale, cost savings and/or value for money through bundling several—or even all—services in a given department, such as public works, or departmental subdivision, such as facility management and maintenance, into an outsourcing initiative, rather than treat individual services or functions separately.

It is crucial that local governments identify good performance measures to fairly compare competing bids and accurately evaluate provider performance after the contract is awarded. Performance-based contracts should be used as much as possible to place the emphasis on obtaining the results the city wants achieved, rather than focusing merely on inputs and trying to dictate precisely how the service should be performed.

Promoting bottom-up development

Like a lot of cities with dying downtowns, Cleveland is desperate to revitalize its inner city. But economic studies consistently find that big publicly funded projects—like professional sport stadiums and the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fame—often fail to increase the overall economic activity. The politicians who promote these corporate welfare projects have promised that they will stimulate the local economy. But city officials have not learned their lesson. The city's new redevelopment silver bullet is a new convention center that will require hundreds of millions of additional tax dollars.

In order to promote bottom-up development in Cleveland, and make the city more attractive to people moving in, and not just taxpayer funded sports teams, there are several principles the city should follow:

Protect life and property. Perhaps the most basic function of government is to ensure the personal safety of its residents and businesses. This function includes ensuring residents are physically safe from actual and the threat of crime. A safe city will attract a wide spectrum of residents from college graduates, to families, to businessmen, to seniors.

Ensure government spending is transparent and accountable. Former Mayor Michael White initiated the "citizen's budget" in an attempt to ensure everyday residents and businesses could both monitor government performance as well as track spending. This transparency is critical in an increasingly competitive environment.

Pay attention to core infrastructure. Potholes count. A road network that links key destinations and maximizes mobility is crucial to ensure people and goods flow effectively at least cost. Well functioning sewer and water systems are essential to support existing businesses as well as support future growth.

For Cleveland to bring the people back they need to realize that real sustainable economic development has to be organic. It can't be forced through big spending projects. It starts by creating a livable city without an oppressive government.

At the end of the day, city officials need to let go of their bureaucratic inclinations and make Cleveland the kind of city where people are free to pursue their own versions of the American Dream. It needs to be a freer city than it is today.

Anthony Randazzo is director of economic research at Reason Foundation. This is a companion piece to the Reason.tv documentary series Reason Saves Cleveland with Drew Carey. Watch the series at Reason.tv or YouTube.

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  1. Cleveland residents already enjoy the kind of big-ticket entertainment options that you can only find in large cities. In addition to the Browns, Cavaliers, and Indians, as well as the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame

    Ooh, the “civic pride” argument.

    Enterprises which transfer wealth from the poor to the rich, with government assistance are fucking AWESOME, dude.


    1. You and I should get acquainted. Step one is reading past the first paragraph.

      EPIC FAIL.

  2. the students can take that money directly to the public school of their choice.”

    Shouldn’t they be able to take their dollars to ANY school of their choice, not just public?

  3. The keys to bringing back people to Cleveland lie with

    [1]fixing education,

    Not gonna happen.

    encouraging economic growth through pro-business tax and regulatory policy,

    Not gonna happen.

    stabilizing city finances using privatization,

    Might happen, because of the opportunities for graft.

    and promoting a bottom-up development strategy.

    Not gonna happen.

    Remember, these are the same people who send Dennis Kucinich to Congress over and over again.

  4. ah dunno. maybe relocate the Native Americans off their reservations and shove em between Carnegie and Euclid?

    1. Let anybody who wants to this country in if they’re willing to spend the first five years living in Cleveland?

      1. But not both repopulation plans at the same time. That would be a bloody replay of history.

  5. God I hate snow. If I were ever transferred back north I would be devastated. When I think of Cleveland, I think of freezing cold misery and that Anthony Bourdain episode where the people are surfing in Lake Erie near the sewage pipe.

    1. “People are surfing in Lake Erie near the sewage pipe.” Yes, I also remember that episode. They were surfing there in January.

      Must be the same people that keep voting for Kucinich.

  6. Step one is reading past the first paragraph.

    Step one is making it seem worthwhile to read past the first paragraph.

    1. Ok, that’s fair. He did take a while to get going.

  7. Change Clevland for Pittsburgh, Detroit, or Buffalo and you can have pretty much the same article. All four have also put significant money into medical facilities and higher education. Unfortunately for the cities, people have been leaving not just the cities themselves, but also the overall regions. Look up the populations of the metropolitan statistical areas on Wikipedia. The region is losing population–the only areas with population loss are in non-coastal New York and Pennsylvania, most of Ohio, Michigan, and West Virginia. (Well, the areas crushed by Hurricane Katrina, too.) Big and small cities all are shrinking.

    People are leaving high taxes and lousy winter weather for better business climates and freedom from snow and ice. There is no compelling reason for large groups of people to settle in these areas when more attractive options exist. Now that the warm weather states have declining property costs, there is even less pressure to move to the area.

    The area around Lake Erie (U.S. side) has been in decline for 60 years. This is not going to change.

    1. I find it odd that libertarians are trying to blame Cleveland’s problems on some sort of left-wing ideology (even though Ohio is very purple), and likewise attribute Houston’s growth to right-wing ideology, even though the whole region is growing, including liberal bastions like Austin.

      The trend is people to leave the rust belt for the sun belt, and it has nothing to do with ideology.

      I also find it odd that despite all these articles, not one has seriously examined Cleveland’s tax rates, or compared them concretely to its suburbs or other major cities. None have mentioned, for example, that new homes in Cleveland carry a 15-year tax abatement.

      1. The area around Lake Erie (U.S. side) has been in decline for 60 years.

        Meanwhile, the Canadian side of Lake Erie (and Ontario, too) seems to be doing rather fine. Interesting, that.

        Anyway, I think all Cleveland needs to do to revive itself is figure out how to attract rich people. NYC and SF have figured it out. They have huge problems of course too, but as long as investment bankers and venture capitalist still wanna live there, they’ll survive. There’s no middle class, but them’s the breaks.

      2. But a big reason Texas is growing is that it has no state income tax, an advantage that even liberal Austin enjoys. 6 of the 22 most populous cities in the USA are in Texas.

      3. Really? You find it odd that Libertarians blame Left-wing ideology for bad stuff happening?

  8. Cleveland sucks! Thank god I live a 1000 miles away from it. I hope those people that live there stay there. They don`t need anymore Clevelanders in Houston, tell them to move to West “bygod” Virginia if they have to leave.

  9. Cleveland needs to plan for the pre-industrial boom’s population. That was sustainable. There will be no repopulation. Especially if we’re going to keep exporting industrial jobs abroad. Clevelanders are making the same arguments we make in Detroit for why our city’s great. I’d wager that most of those St. Patty’s day folk, like Drew Carey, don’t live in the city. Talking like you love the city does nothing for the city, and more importantly it does nothing for the tax base to keep up the now untenable infrastructure.

    And the “you can throw a rock” comment from the video was a great unintentional reference to how white people in Detroit enforced segregation. I imagine y’all did likewise.

    Now get back in your car and go to Wal-Mart.

  10. I liked the “Cleveland is a small big town” quote from the video. It’s the same thing I liked about Buffalo, before I got fed up with the suburbanization (they’re building ranch houses in empty lots adjacent to downtown; hell, they’ll build ANYTHING at this point) and left.

    Cleveland needs to plan for the pre-industrial boom’s population.

    “Planned shrinkage” was suggested for NYC in the mid-70s too when all seemed hopeless. Now, they can’t replace old single and double houses with new apartment houses fast enough. I guess Buffalo’s practicing a form of planned shrinkage with its inner-city ranch houses now, but at the cost of losing what made Buffalo interesting in the first place. It’s a loss of variety.

    1. NYC’s housing market is a paradox. I would like to point out that places like Williamsburg have had to get more realistic now that trust funds have been drying up?or so I read.

      I too hate the suburbs-within-the-city aesthetic. It already was ugly and boring in the suburbs, why bring it to the city? And all these solid mansions continue to rot. I’m saving up money for a castle I’ve had my eye on. I hope I get to it before the bulldozers.

      You must have never seen our urban prairies in Detroit. Cleveland is likely more like us than NYC. Although I’ve only been in their airport; I recognized the decay in the video.

  11. Here’s my plan for turning Cleveland into one of the leading economic cities in the world: make it a tax free zone, with no government. No property taxes, no income taxes, no sales taxes, no schools, no politicians, and no police force. Let each company or building hire its own security personnel, and let parents provide for the education of their children.

    Now if we could just get the county, state, and federal governments go along….

  12. Before 1492 the south of the US, the especially the Mississippi valley, the coasts, and the highlands of Mexico were the most heavily populated areas – the area around the Great Lakes had a much smaller indigenous population. Maybe that wasn’t an accident. When people can move easily it’s hard to keep them trapped in the snow belt. Cleveland and Detroit both need to downsize – they can probably both be very nice boutique yuppie cities at populations around 100,000 people. The issue is not attracting people, the real issue is how do you encourage the losers, the criminals and the meth addicts to move south?

    1. When I lived in Tucson back in the late 80s a lot of our “homeless” (PC for bums) got there when judges in Rust Belt cities gave them the choice of 30 days in jail or a one-way bus ticket to Tucson.

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  18. Having been to Cleveland here recently I think the city would be a great place to live. True I really don’t know about the taxes in the area, but they can’t be too bad. I know we gripe about taxes constantly, but if you think about it, it’s not too bad, yet anyways. I did notice while buying a pair of Clarks Shoes the tax was about $.09 on the dollar. That is kind of ridiculous, but yet a small price to pay when trying to rebuild a city. It’s funny how the people that complain the most about building a better America, are the least willing to pay for it. A better America involves money, cooperation, and an open mind. Most of these people refuse to give any of this. By the way, I totally agree with fixing the schools. That should be the first step. Without a educated kids we have no future. Go school!!!

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