It is a strange time here in Cleveland as we begin a new year marked by a sense of desperation, for we are about to witness yet more bizarre folly by those agents of the apocryphal -- Cuyahoga County Commissioners Jimmy Dimora, Timothy F. Hagan and Peter Lawson Jones.
They represent the single most elusive issue of the past one hundred years: the resistance to change that would lift us from a 19th-century style of government to a streamlined structure, which would save money and offer greater benefits to the county's citizens.
In our time, politicians have united Europe into a union that is able to compete in the modern world. The few remaining Communist countries are restructuring their governing bodies to meet international challenges of which Marx and Lenin could never conceive. Change is everywhere. That is, everywhere but Cuyahoga County, where most public officials have cast aside any pretense of duty to wallow in the trough of self-interest.
It is no historical accident that we lag so far behind other communities in several vital categories. The reason for our despair is a resistance to reality by all of us. We have stood by and watched generations of elected officials act as functionaries, collecting pensions and building bureaucracies fashioned from family and friends. We have watched them flush our fortune and future away.
We have ignored vision and embraced the pettiness that has become the hallmark of our existence. Collectively, we are not a smart demographic. We stand here as inept as the leaders we elect.
No greater example of political deceit and desperation exists than that of the current promise of a Medical Mart and a new convention center for Cleveland.
There are so many issues surrounding the construction of a new convention center that a thorough examination of the topic would exhaust even the most patient of souls. For the sake of argument, I accept that a convention center would be an economic benefit.
When the subject was floated during Mayor Jane Campbell's administration, it became clear there was not enough public backing for the venture, and the mayor timidly withdrew her support.
I think the reason the public is skeptical about the worth of a convention center is not the economics so much as the distrust for the elected officials proposing any project.
The track record of the present Cuyahoga County commissioners who have proposed the project is abysmal. For example, their decision to buy the Ameritrust Tower for the site of the new county administration offices turned out to be a waste of millions of dollars when they decided to abandon the project.
Fox 8 News has reported that the FBI began an investigation into a multimillion-dollar asbestos contract, which the commissioners gave to a local company that was outbid by a St. Louis firm by nearly a million dollars.
Now the commissioners have made the construction of a convention center contingent on the establishment of the so-called Medical Mart. The commissioners voted on a 0.25 percentage point increase in the county sales tax to appease the Medical Mart's developers, Merchandise Mart Properties Inc., a company that operates the giant Merchandise Mart in Chicago and 11 other mega-marts around the nation. The tax raises $42 million annually. Other cities are competing for the Medical Mart, so it appears to be a crapshoot at best or another con at worst.
The county commissioners are smart enough to know they have a credibility problem, not unlike the subprime mortgage people. So they asked lawyer Fred Nance to represent them in selling the project.
Nance is the local managing partner of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey, chairman of the Greater Cleveland Partnership (the chamber of commerce), and a longtime confidant to former Mayor Mike White. Nance has a history of playing a key role in controversial projects, such as the IX Center sale to the city and the construction of Cleveland Browns Stadium, the cost of which has never been truly determined.
Nance is supposed to be the credibility factor in what could be another civic charade. The Plain Dealer hardly projected confidence in him when it announced the appointment and labeled him "Fred the Fixer."
Nance recently presented the plans for the project to the Press Club of Cleveland. He admitted the market might not support the idea. In fact, the plan has all the desperation of a fourth and long or a sting, depending on your degree of optimism.
The plan, in short, calls for a convention center to be built near or adjacent to the Medical Mart, which means the location of such a project is critical. The Merchandise Mart people, not surprisingly, want it near the Cleveland Clinic, preferably on the site of the Philip Johnson-designed Cleveland Play House, according to Nance.
One Press Club member, retired Cleveland Press reporter Helen Moise, gasped out loud when Nance implied that the Play House is in jeopardy. Nance was quick to say that this plan was unacceptable, that a convention center had to be built downtown.
It is clear that location looms as a possible deal breaker for the Medical Mart.
When I asked Nance what would happen to the tax if the Medical Mart fell through, he said Commissioner Tim Hagan had told him -- that very morning -- the commissioners would rescind it. I was embarrassed by my involuntary guffaw.
One begins to sense that we may end up with a convention center, but nothing to actually attract business to Cleveland. A Medical Mart is a good idea, but the shapelessness and uncertainty of the venture is a metaphor for the pervasive ineptness of an antiquated government structure run by officer holders whose only duty is to themselves.