CLEVELAND—It’s been a particularly bruising year for America’s most-battered civic psyche. LeBron James fled the Cavaliers, who proceeded to lose an NBA-record 26 straight games this season. The Browns missed the playoffs again and fired another coach. The lead sports column in the Cleveland Plain Dealer today pinned the city’s fragile hopes for future happiness on—ouch—a fast start by the Indians.
Also, there’s the economy.
But the funny thing about the economy is that it's actually doing much better, relatively speaking, than in previous times of national strife. The Cleveland metro area unemployment rate in December stood at 8.5 percent, one-half of a percentage point below the national average.
Civic and business leaders chalk up the lower rate to a sustained campaign in Northeast Ohio over the last decade to transition away from a declining industrial base and toward cutting-edge industries in areas such as biotechnology—a transition President Obama lauded repeatedly here today when he and a parade of cabinet secretaries hit the town for a small-business listening session.
“You’ve been working to reinvent the Rust Belt as the Tech Belt,” Obama told several hundred local business executives at Cleveland State University, closing a day of panel discussions where administration officials actively sought national lessons from what they called a region in turnaround.
Obama and his team—including Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, Energy Secretary Steven Chu, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Small Business Administration head Karen Mills, National Economic Council Chairman Gene Sperling, and Council of Economic Advisors Chairman Austan Goolsbee—mixed praise for Cleveland with a lot of time listening to executives and investors.
In his tax- and credit-focused session, Geithner pressed several panelists on technical details of state and federal tax policies (particularly as they relate to venture capital and other corners of small-business lending), the current state of capital markets, and investment drivers in the post-recession economy.
Opening the session, Geithner told attendees, “What we need from you is a sense of what’s getting better, what’s still hard, what would actually be a policy we could do to make a difference.” He also said, in regards to any policies they might suggest, that it would be “easier for us to do something if we don’t have to legislate.”
Even with that warning, the discussion returned frequently to suggestions for a new tax credit for so-called “angel investors”—basically, wealthy folks who give start-ups cash in exchange for equity—to mimic credits currently offered by Ohio and other states.
In that session, and in Locke’s, business owners frequently complained about their difficulties in obtaining working capital to grow, expand, fill orders, and hire workers.
Panelists also talked up their local successes, egged on, often, by Obama himself.
In his closing remarks, Obama recalled being asked, in the panel discussion with Geithner, why he came to Cleveland.
“I said, not only are big things happening here, but they’re emblematic of things that are happening across the country,” Obama told the crowd. That’s quite a moral boost from the cheerleader in chief.
What Obama didn’t tell the large group was that his ode to Northeast Ohio was his second answer to the Cleveland question. His first was, “I just felt bad when LeBron left.”
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This article appears in the February 23, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.