'5 Questions With' Michael Deemer, President and CEO of Downtown Cleveland Alliance

'5 Questions With' Michael Deemer, President and CEO of Downtown Cleveland Alliance

1. Congratulations on your recent appointment to serve as the President and CEO of Downtown Cleveland Alliance! You have been with the organization since 2011 and have seen a number of changes in the downtown Cleveland area and surrounding neighborhoods. What is your personal vision for the organization and what do you see as the greatest opportunities over the next 12-months?

I’m excited about and grateful for the opportunity to lead Downtown Cleveland Alliance at this moment in time. As we plan for leading Downtown Cleveland through the pandemic and into recovery, I am drawing heavily upon my past experience helping lead Ohio through the Great Recession while serving as Gov. Ted Strickland's economic development policy advisor and helping lead Downtown Cleveland out of the Great Recession in founding DCA's business development center.

I envision Downtown Cleveland Alliance as the city’s leading voice for place-based, walkable, transit-oriented development. We will be consumed over the next year with providing the vision and collaborative spirit necessary to lead Downtown’s recovery. We have an opportunity during this time to lay the groundwork for cementing Downtown as a place that nurtures, retains and attracts diverse talent. That opportunity is rooted in the generational change underway among our civic leaders and federal investment in cities. To meaningfully address our city’s greatest challenges—concentrated poverty, job sprawl, and racial inequity—I’ve long believed Cleveland needed resources akin to the Marshall Plan. We now have an opportunity to develop a blueprint worthy of Marshall Plan-like resources to remake the urban core with place building initiatives that create irresistible, unique, authentic experiences.  

2. DCA’s mission is to attract residents, jobs, and investment to the city’s core through market influence, community impact, and creating irresistible experiences. How do you plan to execute on your mission and how do you plan to address the constant discussion of “downtown vs. the neighborhoods”?

I’m fortunate to be supported by a highly talented, committed team of city builders. We’ve reorganized this team to focus on our core priorities over the next year: 

  • Attracting office workers to return 
  • Recruiting diverse retail 
  • Coupling compelling data and design to tell our story to attract jobs back to the core. 
  • Connecting individuals who are homeless or experiencing mental health and addiction-related crisis with needed shelter and services, while providing a visible, uniformed, mobile, and responsive presence throughout downtown. 
  • Animating downtown with street and neighborhood activations and events that enhance the pedestrian experience and make Downtown Cleveland a more interesting and lovable place to be.  

I see Downtown Cleveland as the place where all are welcome and come together. The “downtown vs. the neighborhoods” discussion distracts from the fact that both share a need for more jobs, residents, and investment. I believe the city and region desperately need a strategy to concentrate jobs in the core. This will require tremendous collaboration and a combination of place building, economic development, and workforce development strategies. A strategy to concentrate job growth in the core is essential because it is an inherently equitable and sustainable. It will mean more people will have more access to more jobs without relying on a car, the second highest expense for most households. 

3. How do DCA and Downtown Cleveland Improvement Corporation, the governing body for the downtown special improvement district, work together to further the missions of both entities?

Over the last 16 years, Downtown Cleveland Alliance and the Downtown Cleveland Improvement Corporation have provided services and leadership to the Special Improvement District. DCA is a 501(c)(3) organization governed by a board of directors comprised of a diverse array of stakeholders. DCIC is the governing entity for downtown’s primary special improvement district. All property owners within the SID are members of DCIC and pay a property assessment in exchange for a set of enhanced services. All DCIC board directors are required by law to be property owners within the SID. DCIC contracts with DCA to provide these enhanced services to DCIC, including cleanliness, safety, hospitality, business development, marketing, and placemaking initiatives.  

4. As the number of residents in downtown has reached 20,000+, what are you doing to re-engage residents, employers and employees, and visitors? Have you created any new partnerships to help in these efforts?

We catapulted out of the NFL Draft and launched a Welcome (Back) to Downtown Cleveland campaign, including paid, earned, and social media and business outreach. The campaign drew attention to outdoor events, the reopening of entertainment venues, the number of shops and restaurants that were open, and the continued investment taking place in the core. We also directly engaged with employers about downtown’s need for office workers to return and the innovation, collaboration, and mental benefits of place-based work culture. Stay-tuned as we continue this campaign in the fall and winter as we emphasize making Downtown a four-season place. 

Our alliance is, by definition, a network of strategic partners and we are constantly looking for ways to grow and deepen that network. Over the summer, we established a new partnership with Karamu House, the oldest producing Black theater in the country, for downtown’s first annual Juneteenth Freedom Festival. I’m looking forward to building upon and evolving this powerful partnership in the years to come. 

More recently, we deepened our long-time collaboration with the Historic Gateway Neighborhood Corporation and Historic Warehouse District Development Corporation, bringing all the of those organizations’ staff under DCA’s umbrella and for the first time providing truly unified service delivery and organizational leadership within the Downtown Cleveland Special Improvement District. 

5. With the upcoming mayoral election, what are DCA’s top three priorities on which you wish to engage the mayor-elect?

The priorities I’m most looking forward to engage on are rooted in the public policy agenda we produced as part of our larger strategy to register, educate, and turnout downtown voters, as well as the singular opportunity the influx of federal resources represents. 

The city’s core has many needs, but the top priorities that I look forward to working with the mayor-elect on are: 

  • Developing a place building strategy for attracting talent. Building walkable, transit-oriented places where people can easily meet their daily needs because mobility options are convenient and attractive and retail and recreation options are plentiful and accessible is a locally and nationally proven talent attraction and retention strategy. We know what works when it comes to talent attraction and retention and a well-conceived strategy can build upon and accelerate what is already working. 
  • Creating an economic development strategy to concentrate job growth in the city and reverse job sprawl. The way jobs have sprawled away from the city is unsustainable and inequitable. To achieve greater equity and reduce regional disparity, we need to complement placemaking initiatives with economic development programs that focus on the city’s core. 
  • Queuing off the work of our Clean, Safe, and Welcoming Ambassadors and our co-responder pilot project this summer with Medworks to build a model co-responder approach for connecting individuals who are homeless or experiencing mental health or addiction-related crises. I believe downtown can model a thoughtful, comprehensive approach that enhances quality of life both for residents and individuals experiencing crisis that can be replicated in other neighborhoods and cities. 
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