GLOBAL CLEVELAND, a non-profit economic development agency, was launched by young civic and business leaders in 2011 to try and boost Cleveland’s population and economy by attracting new residents from around the world. The organization never achieved its early, lofty goals of revitalizing the city with new arrivals, but its work and struggle for support lent insight into the region’s conflicting views of  immigrants and culture change.

By the early 2000s, it was clear that America’s second great immigration wave had largely bypassed Cleveland, which had lost population every decade since the 1950s and was still declining. As other major cities and metro areas were growing with immigrants, Greater Cleveland by 2000 was nearly entirely native born. Some civic activists, most notably Richard Herman, a Cleveland immigration lawyer, promoted the need for attracting immigrants to boost population and revive urban neighborhoods. His idea was endorsed by the JEWISH FEDERATION OF CLEVELAND, which sponsored planning workshops.  Welcome centers and offices of new Americans had emerged in cities like Chicago, Philadelphia and Boston to attract and retain immigrants and international students. Herman and his supporters saw a need for such a center in Cleveland.

They faced a tough sell. Much of Cleveland’s business establishment was slow to embrace the idea of welcoming immigrants, and support was weak among many of the region’s politicians, who typically enjoyed well-established bases of support. Skepticism was especially strong in the AFRICAN AMERICAN community, where many saw little to gain by attracting immigrants who might compete with them for jobs.  However, some young business leaders took up the cause, mindful that immigrants had shown themselves to be a job creating force in the new economy.  These included Baiju Shah, the leader of a science focused business development agency called BioEnterprise and Global Cleveland’s first board chairman. Shah was a strong proponent of the need to attract new talent to fill open jobs in the region, mainly in skilled and technical fields.

At the time of Global Cleveland’s launch in 2011, nearly 300 supporters attended a planning summit at CLEVELAND STATE UNIVERSITY. For a model of success, some pointed to Cleveland's immigrant past. At its peak population of nearly 1 million in 1950, some 15 percent of Clevelanders were foreign born. (By 2010, Cleveland’s population had slipped below the 400,000 threshold, to 395,978, and about 5 percent of residents were immigrants.)  "When you think about Cleveland, immigration is woven into the DNA," then CSU President Ronald Berkman told the gathering. "There are very few cities with these ethnic communities. It gives us something to build upon." Daniel Walsh, the young regional president of Huntington Bank and a charter member of Global Cleveland’s board of directors, described a goal attracting 100,000 new Clevelanders in a decade."I think it's going to be easier than people think," he told the crowd.

It turned out to be harder and more sensitive than many expected. Walsh’s bank helped launch the initiative with a $500,000 grant and some venerable employers joined the crusade. FOREST CITY ENTERPRISES, under the leadership of Albert Ratner, was an early and steadfast backer of Global Cleveland. But other business support was slow to arrive and politicians mostly stayed silent.

Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson joined Global Cleveland as an honorary board member, but his support was never enthusiastic or certain. In his State of the City address in 2013, Jackson was asked what he thought of the idea of trying to attract immigrants.  “I believe in taking care of your own,” he answered.

Global Cleveland’s early leaders moved cautiously. They talked about attracting “newcomers” and “boomerangers”—former Clevelanders--avoiding the words “immigrants” and “refugees.” Herman, who sought an assertive immigrant attracting strategy, resigned from the board in disgust and never again associated with the group he helped to start. Other early backers soon left a group they considered ineffective, including Jose Feliciano who, as President of the Hispanic Roundtable, represented the region’s HISPANIC leadership. 

Still, Global Cleveland survived several leadership changes and attracted enough support to remain a player in the civic commons. In 2016, Joe Cimperman, a former member of Cleveland City Council, was named Global Cleveland’s president. The charismatic Cimperman, an immigrant’s son, brought new energy and attention to the organization, which now had more modest ambitions.  With a small staff--five people in 2019—Global Cleveland was not able to run the programs envisioned at its birth, such as talent recruiting, job matching and entrepreneurship training. But it became the group most associated with welcoming immigrants and supporting multiculturalism in Greater Cleveland. Under Cimperman, Global Cleveland staff and volunteers routinely attended naturalization ceremonies and welcomed the new Americans. It launched an event to welcome the region’s international students, with plans to make the welcome program an annual event, and it sought to coach employers to hire international talent at events like the Global Employer Summit.

By 2019, eight years after the launch of Global Cleveland, the city’s population was still falling, albeit more slowly, and the percentage of city residents with immigrant roots remained at about 5 percent--ranking Cleveland one of the least diverse big cities in America.

Robert L. Smith

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