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Cleveland’s District of Design; what happened?

View of the one-time District of Design area taken this past Winter.

                                        View of the one-time District of Design area taken this past Winter.

I have decided to republish the last piece I wrote this past May for the Yahoo Contributor Network on the fate of a much-publicized innovative proposal to bring jobs into the city of Cleveland; the District Design Initiative.

“Today, most people look puzzled when you ask them what happened to the District of Design. Many don’t even know there was such a thing in the first place. “Sounds like the Medical Mart,” a friend of mine said on the phone recently. The brainchild of Cleveland Institute of Art industrial design professor and chair Dan Cuffaro and Cleveland State University’s Ned Hill, the goal of the District of Design Initiative was to create as Cuffaro put it, “The Milan of the Midwest,” an agglomeration of consumer design firms in the hope of generating jobs for graduates of the Cleveland Institute of Art’s Design Program. When it was first presented to the public, a flurry of news stories touting its’ benefits appeared in local media and then mysteriously vanished. Now, question is this; is the District of Design still viable or was it doomed from the start?
Dan Cuffaro sent me an email at the same time stating that the recession did put a damper on things. “It was very difficult to get companies to make investments that didn’t have immediate returns, especially when the benefit to companies was in talent retention (which became a low priority) and new product innovation (no capital to invest in new products). When you have several years of serious barriers, the momentum disappears.” He wrote in his email to me, “We had to switch gears personally while the world recovered, so for the moment the District remains on hold.” However, Cuffaro believes that the District is emerging organically.

There are design studios operating in the Cleveland area but, just like in 2008, scattered in all directions. Toistudios which had an entry in the 2010 Millwork Fair at the Halle Building is located in Lakewood. Second Shift, a studio that specializes in contemporary furniture, is has Lorain Avenue in Cleveland’s Ohio City as its’ home. Only two can be found within the official boundaries of the Design District, Balanced Product Development and Richard Design LLC. However, they’re on Superior Avenue and that’s as close to Euclid Avenue and East. 14th St. as these studios get.

The District still has its own Facebook page www.facebook.com/pages/District-of-Design-Cleveland but the last entry seems to be from February 16, 2011. When I sent a message on that site, I received no reply. The City of Cleveland still had in April, on the internet, a PDF brochure regarding the initiative, “Promoting Reinvestment in the City of Cleveland” the front page states; it provides information on funding, eligible properties, and contract requirements. It also refers anyone interested in applying to contact the Playhouse Square Real Estate Services for more information. I don’t know how old this document was but when I contacted a councilman’s aide that I know, she had no idea this brochure existed. Recently, on the suggestion of Councilman Michael D. Polensek, I contacted Tracy Nichols, Director of Economic Development for the City of Cleveland regarding the brochure. While I did receive a reply from one of her staff that they will forward it to her Ms. Nichols didn’t reply. On the other hand, a man employed in the Office of the Mayor did contact me in late April on basic questions, since then I have received no official response. However, as of May 2014, the brochure is no longer available.
I also called this January Tom Einhouse at Playhouse Square Real Estate Services to see if they are still doing anything with the Initiative. He said that there hasn’t been any activity around here for the last couple years. I asked him if it’s therefore dead, he replied that unless something new comes up with it. The Cleveland Furniture and Millwork Fair appear dead as well. I tried calling up the office manager at the Halle Building where it was held in July of 2010 and, as of February, I still didn’t hear anything. Same can be said with Hoover and Royal Appliances who were supposed to build showrooms down on Euclid Avenue. On the other hand, the Design Lab at Jane Addams High School still exists.

The odds of Cleveland becoming a center of consumer design were probably stacked against it in the first place. However, I sincerely believe that this is a very good proposal to work on again. It would increase tax revenues for the city, provide jobs for graduates of such schools as the Cleveland Institute of Art and it would also do for consumer product companies what the Youngstown Business Incubator has done for software companies in that city. The original idea of showrooms along Euclid Avenue for one stop shopping would be something people would get out of their cars to look at.
Projects in Cleveland seem to go in cycles. With the economy picking up perhaps the District of Design will still happen.”

A brochure that the city of Cleveland once had online.

                                                     A brochure that the city of Cleveland once had online.

I was getting a lot of feedback on this piece when Yahoo pulled the plug on their Contributor Network and I still believe that Dan Cuffaro’s idea was a pretty good one. However, I must admit that if I had to write this over again I would have interviewed one of his colleagues at the Institute of Art to make it more objective. I ran into his wife at a regional collaboration meeting last month and when I discussed this piece she told me that there were some good reasons why the District of Design probably wouldn’t have taken off. According to her husband, if I recall, companies don’t want part of their operations in one place on Euclid Avenue while the rest is located somewhere else. That’s a good argument which I wish I thought about when I was writing this. On the other hand, I would’ve argued that these design studios could have moved their entire operations into the area since not all the vacant office space in those buildings will be converted into apartments; like the Downtown Cleveland Alliance crowd pushes right now.

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