CLEVELAND, Ohio -- A group of civic and business leaders today will announce the creation of something Cleveland has never seen before: an international welcome center on Public Square.
Envisioned as the hub of the coming Global Cleveland Initiative, the welcome center will occupy a storefront in the former BP Tower, across Euclid Avenue from the entrance to Positively Cleveland, the area's convention and visitors bureau. Backers envision a high-profile welcome mat that would rebrand Cleveland as a diverse, accepting, globally minded city.
Huntington Bank has committed a leading gift of $500,000 to open the center and to launch an era of welcoming new talent and new cultures to Northeast Ohio. Forest City Enterprises and the Cleveland Foundation have also pledged financial support, and other local corporations and foundations are expected to follow in the coming weeks.
"We have the fuel to make the mission successful," said BioEnterprise President Baiju Shah, chairman of the Global Cleveland Initiative. "Global Cleveland is going to happen. It's a reality."
The official launch is scheduled for late May, during a two-day Global Cleveland summit chaired by Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. But Shah and other stewards feel confident enough to reveal details of a crusade that some thought might never commence.
It was more than a decade ago that some civic and ethnic leaders warned that the region was missing out on the high-skill immigrants stoking the New Economy and that Cleveland's population losses were mounting. But the idea of welcoming a new generation of immigrants never engaged the region's leadership.
Last year, the Jewish Federation of Cleveland embraced the concept, and it quickly gained traction. The federation tapped Shah to recruit a board of directors and provided funds for planning and start-up costs.
In recent months, both Jackson and Cuyahoga County Executive Ed FitzGerald endorsed what has become known as the Global Cleveland Initiative. Institutions as diverse as the Cleveland Clinic, the Hispanic Roundtable and the Cleveland NAACP are represented on the executive board.
One of the first business leaders to assume a leadership role was Daniel Walsh Jr., the new president of Huntington's Greater Cleveland operations. Walsh, who grew up in Parma and lives in Shaker Heights, said he and his fellow executives at the Columbus-based bank believe the idea could be transformative.
"It's a multiyear commitment by the bank," Walsh said of Huntington's half-million-dollar gift. "We see this as an economic development engine. We want the whole world to know Cleveland is the place to achieve the American dream." This fall, Huntington will move about 300 employees into the former BP Tower, which will become the Huntington building. Walsh said the bank's new landlord agreed to accommodate the welcome
center with an appealing lease for about 4,000 square feet of first-floor space.
The Cleveland International Welcome Center, modeled after those in other cities, is expected to serve several functions. It will be an information center for people considering new lives in Northeast Ohio, connecting them to their ethnic communities and referring them to services like English classes and business seminars.
It's also to be the headquarters of an initiative to market Cleveland to the world and to recruit the talent local employers say they need to compete and grow.
Shah envisions a culturally savvy job-matching center that will help fill the more than 30,000 local jobs open in the fields of science, medicine, engineering and technology. He said extending a welcome from Public Square makes a symbolic statement. "It's the heart of not just the city but the region," he said.
Global Cleveland needs to attract more support to fill a first-year budget projected at $1.4 million and subsequent budgets estimated at $2 million annually. But Shah said the early and broad-based support represents "a great start."
Forest City, whose co-chairman Albert Ratner is a long-time supporter of the concept, pledged $100,000. The board of the Cleveland Foundation approved a grant of $150,000 on the recommendation of Shilpa Kedar, its program director for economic development.
Kedar said population losses are weakening neighborhoods and diminishing the region's political clout. She said she's impressed with the drive toward a solution. "You have some very bright people who are investing a lot of time and energy in this," she said. "Any kind of pro-active, aggressive strategy to get our population back up is indeed a positive thing."
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