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Region’s abundant fresh water still the overlooked key to Cleveland’s future: Brent Larkin

September 21, 2018

Region’s abundant fresh water still the overlooked key to Cleveland’s future: Brent Larkin

CLEVELAND -- This town’s version of a big idea is a dirt bike track.  

It defines reaching for the stars as submitting an underwhelming, secretive, doomed-from-Day-One bid for Amazon’s second headquarters.

Apparently no one got the memo Jeff Bezos wouldn’t be a bit interested in moving high-tech, high-paying jobs to an undereducated and unskilled marketplace, served by a pitiful airport in a region that’s bleeding population. And doing next to nothing about it.  

The spectacular gentrification of downtown and a few nearby neighborhoods breeds a dangerous complacency.  

Truth is, we’d be sunk without the three world-class medical facilities and the greatness that permeates University Circle.  

Cleveland lawyer Jon Pinney was dead right in complaining about us being “dead last” in so many vitally important demographic measurements during his June 8 speech at the City Club of Cleveland.

For about 28 minutes, Pinney told a lot of uncomfortable truths about the region and its problems. Then he committed the mind-numbing mistake in naming eight white males as his change agents of choice.  

In the public sector, Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish and Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson are two good men who might not be right for the moment.  

Budish is far too cautious, a shortcoming that’s harming his reputation.  

Jackson is one year into an unprecedented fourth term that seems to lack purpose. His last exercise in boldness came more than six years ago – a commendable effort to fix Cleveland schools.  

With business and civic leaders, the talent and vision pool is deeper. There are a lot of brainy people harboring gigantic concerns about our future.  

Auto dealer Bernie Moreno is behind an effort to make the region a global leader in development of blockchain technology. Even if the idea doesn’t pan out, Moreno’s risk-taking is precisely what Greater Cleveland needs.  

Someone better start sounding clarion calls. For things like: free tuition at Cuyahoga Community College; an ironclad commitment to quality preschool for 100 percent of the county’s needy children; repopulating the county in what may be the only way possible – a 30- to 50-year total rebuild of Cleveland’s East Side.  

Or, perhaps above all, figure out that there’s only one thing Northeast Ohio has that most everywhere else on Planet Earth does not. Here we sit, on six quadrillion gallons of fresh water, 21 percent of the world’s total supply, in the Great Lakes. Without a plan to take advantage of it.    

JobsOhio pays little more than lip service to building a water-based economy.

And despite findings by federal agencies that the Lake Erie Energy Development Corp.’s wind energy project offshore of Cleveland poses minimal risk to fish and wildlife, state agencies including the Ohio Department of Natural Resources have ignored support from environmental groups by imposing project-killing conditions.  

Opposition from polluters must still matter at the state level.  

The squabble over a dirt bike track on Cleveland’s East Side lasted two years, with a proposed cost of about $2.3 million, before city officials canceled it and said they would be looking elsewhere for a site. 

But $2.3 million is five times the annual budget of the Cleveland Water Alliance, the nonprofit changed with creating water-related economic opportunities.  

While Greater Cleveland takes baby steps, Milwaukee takes giant ones.

In a July report, the Brookings Institution wrote of the city’s huge investments in water technology that, “Milwaukee has positioned itself as an undisputed global water hub.” 

For Greater Cleveland, it doesn’t get much more pathetic than that.  

Former Gov. Dick Celeste, a Cleveland native and really smart guy, has repeatedly identified water as the key to the region’s future. At a Greater Cleveland Partnership event in 2013, Celeste urged the region’s leaders to make Cleveland “the capital of the water belt on the planet — not just the United States, but the planet.”

“This is a challenge to our imagination and commitment,” Celeste also said.

Since then, crickets. The late David Morgenthaler, the legendary venture capitalist who died in 2016 at age 96, was one of Greater Cleveland’s precious few visionaries.  

Near the end of his life, Morgenthaler openly worried about the region he dearly loved.

In 2012, I asked Morgenthaler about how we guarantee a meaningful future.  

“When I shave in the morning, I look out the window and see 20 percent of the world’s fresh water flowing past my house,” he answered. “I’ve thought about how we use that to build an economic future.  

“I haven’t found it yet. But the answer has to be there.”  

We’re not even looking for it.

Brent Larkin was The Plain Dealer’s editorial director from 1991 until his retirement in 2009.

To reach Brent Larkin: blarkin@cleveland.com

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