Paramjit Singh believes Northeast Ohio needs to pay more attention to the real Cleveland Indians.
"I am here to say we have something to offer, but nobody is noticing and nobody is making use of it," he exclaims.
When Singh arrived stateside in the early '60s, Cleveland was supposed to be a short stop for the young engineer. After enrolling at what is now Case Western Reserve University, he planned on earning a master's degree and working a few years in America before returning to his native India. But 45 years later, Singh is still a Clevelander, and one who cares deeply about his city's future.
"I've had the opportunity to travel all over this country, and I am convinced that Cleveland has a lot to offer," he says. "But we, the people that live in Cleveland, seem to be in a box and we don't even know we are in one."
Today, Singh operates a successful marketing firm and also owns an assisted-living property. An entrepreneur by nature, he insists his business drive is typical of Indians who immigrate to the United States. "Strong family ties, education, being successful — that's what's ingrained in us."
Singh passionately explains that the entrepreneurial spirit of his fellow Indian immigrants has put many in the top of their fields, whether in business, medicine or academia. "We are still a minority, a much smaller minority that may not be significant in numbers, but we are tremendously significant in terms of technology, in terms of economic growth, in terms of our economic expenditures."
But the impact of the Indian community on Northeast Ohio has largely been a silent one because "it's not typical in our culture to speak out about our success," Singh explains.
For all its talk about becoming a global region, Northeast Ohio has failed to fully appreciate the contributions recent immigrants have made. This community doesn't realize the economic potential such groups can have on Cleveland. And it's a potential the city can no longer afford to ignore. With both City Hall and the business community set on redefining Northeast Ohio as a technology and innovation center, the importance of immigrant groups — specifically Indian immigrants — cannot go unappreciated.
"It makes sense to focus on the Indian community because they're driving tech innovation much more than any other immigrant community," says Richard Herman, a Cleveland-based immigration attorney and advocate, Richard T. Herman & Assoc. LLC.
According to the study "America's New Immigrant Entrepreneurs," by Duke professor Vivek Wadhwa and University of California at Berkley professor AnnaLee Saxenian, foreign-born entrepreneurs founded more than 25 percent of the technology and engineering companies in the United States between 1995 and 2005. Of that number, more than 25 percent were founded by Indian immigrants, more than by immigrants from China, Taiwan and Japan combined. But this boom has passed Ohio by: In that 10-year period, only 1 percent of Indian immigrant businesses were founded in the state.
"We've got close to 300 million to 315 million Indians that have engineering degrees or professional degrees that are ready to come out," Singh says.
Although the tech-minded Indian entrepreneur is a perfect match for Northeast Ohio's aspirations, no one is taking action. Civic and business leaders show little interest in immigrants, in either attracting more or working with the ones already established in the region, Singh says. "I just think that nobody focuses on [immigration]," Herman says. "We don't think in terms of globalization here."
Many Rust Belt cities have been brutally hit by the global market, but only few realize globalization can work both ways. American companies that partner with overseas firms, for example, benefit from an international talent pool working round-the-clock. Also, local businesses boxed out of domestic markets survive by finding customers overseas. Such global business strategies are common around the country.
Singh believes our static region hesitates to change because it remains trapped by older ways of thinking. "There is still discrimination. It is more subtle in the professional levels, but it's there," he says. "The reality is that there are a whole list of minority immigrants that can make economic contributions to Greater Cleveland."
Other post-industrial regions such as Pittsburgh and Buffalo are bouncing back from the loss of a manufacturing base by courting immigrant groups to refill empty neighborhoods and reignite local economies. Northeast Ohio, however, appears oblivious to the economic and cultural impact an immigrant presence could have for Cleveland's abandoned neighborhoods.
It's time the region changes its perception of immigration, before it's too late. "We have to harness globalization for positive growth," Herman says, "as opposed to being the punching bag for it."
Today, the number threatening Cleveland is 370,000 — the projected population in four years time if the current trend continues. And as surrounding communities share in on the shrinkage, a growing number of voices point to an influx of immigrants as the only way to slow the downward spiral.
"America has never grown by domestic population increases. It's always been immigration," says Dr. Mark Rosentraub, dean of the Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University. Although immigration has played a vital role in the region's history, many are suspicious of new arrivals from across the border. "I've tried to convince people that the notion of immigrants coming for jobs was the 19th and early 20th century," he says. "We're not talking about taking jobs; we're talking about creating jobs."
A 2004 study by The Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., found a positive correlation between immigrants in U.S. cities and economic vibrancy. The study found that economic "hot spots" such as Atlanta; Raleigh-Durham, N.C.; San Jose, Calif.; and Minneapolis experienced a foreign-born population growth of 816 percent, 709 percent, 226 percent and 196 percent respectively, between 1980 and 2000.
Today, only 4.2 percent of Cleveland's population is foreign born.
And those immigrant communities in Northeast Ohio have thrived despite their small numbers, according to Herman and his advocacy partner, Rose Zitiello. Zitiello, an attorney who works for the City of Cleveland in community building, sees the work of immigrant entrepreneurs essential to revitalizing struggling neighborhoods. "It's the same immigrant spirit that built the United States a hundred years ago," she says. "The same type of hope, vision and hard work. How did the Bronx come back from the dead? People say it was the immigrant and minority entrepreneurs who came in and took it back block by block."
"They are succeeding with hardly any support," adds Herman, pointing to local neighborhoods such as Chinatown, Little Arabia and the Vietnamese community around the Detroit Shoreway. "Most of them are disconnected from mainstream business resources, so they're capitalizing internally, networking internally."
Members of Cleveland's immigrant communities have started their own businesses, gone into real estate and even established international trade, all under the radar of the greater business community. "Think about the potential if we could connect them with the mainstream," he says.
Herman and Zitiello stress that the city cannot fully benefit from the economic impact of immigrants until the region attracts many more.
A great place to start is for Northeast Ohio to begin taking advantage of the incentives already in place to attract foreign entrepreneurs. For example, a government program stipulates if a foreign investor puts $1 million into a stateside business and creates 10 jobs, the investor and his or her family will receive green cards. However, if the business is located in a Regional Center, or a region officially designated as economically distressed, the required investment drops to $500,000. Such opportunities send foreign investors flocking to these areas — but not Northeast Ohio, where no steps have been taken to become a Regional Center. "These programs are popping up all over Iowa, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, but not a peep in Ohio. Why?" Herman wonders. "Who's against foreign capital?"
As members of the Cleveland Council of World Affairs, Herman and Zitiello work to persuade communities to market themselves as globally minded. One simple step is for a city to translate the information on their Web sites into other languages. This way, cities can attract the attention of foreign entrepreneurs looking for a destination in the United States.
"You'll see very few Web sites on any of the 58 communities within Cuyahoga County touting their interest in attracting foreign-speaking people, talking about the international assets they have in their communities," Zitiello says. "For example, Solon has two Chinese speaking schools now, but if you go on the city's Web site, [you won't find anything there]. If I'm in another country looking for a place to move in Northeast Ohio, how would I know that about Solon?"
"We need to get back into the advertising business of Greater Cleveland," says Rosentraub, who believes the city ought to open "Cleveland Stores" to promote the opportunities the region presents to immigrants already in the United States, as well as overseas.
Some moves are under way by the state. This year, Ohio announced plans to use $200,000 to open a store in India to lure Indian entrepreneurs and businesses. A giant step in the right direction, says Singh.
"It's a matter of getting people sitting in India wanting to do something in the United States to look at Northeast Ohio as their best choice," he says.
But as the global economy stretches further from the Rust Belt, Northeast Ohio's necessity for immigrants will continue to go head-to-head against parochial attitudes. "Cleveland is able to compete with the rest of the world," Herman says, "but only if it wants to."