In 2004 Mayor Jane Campbell and Cleveland Planning Director Chris Ronayne along with several Cleveland area commercial retail developers traveled to the International Council of Shopping Centers annual meeting in Las Vegas to court retailers to lease space in a proposed shopping center on unused land belonging to the International Steel Group . The site was selected because thirty-thousand people lived within a ten minute drive to the area.. Additionally, its proximity to Interstates 71, 77, 90, 490 and Ohio Route 176, made it easily accessible. From the beginning, this urban infill project proposed attracting grocery and discount retailers with Ikea and Bass Pro Shops as potential anchor stores.
First Interstate Properties Ltd. won the $120 million bid to develop Steelyard Commons. The Campell administration (see: MAYORAL ADMINISTRATION OF JANE CAMPBELL) and First Interstate pitched the project as a catalyst for economic growth in Cleveland neighborhoods. However, from almost the very beginning, they experienced resistance from neighborhood groups, community leaders, and academics. The initial wave of pushback was against the very idea of redeveloping industrial land which once supported well-paying steel jobs being redeveloped for low wage retail jobs. Some of those opponents were very close to Mayor Campbell. One opponent of Steelyard was Cleveland Planning Director, Chris Ronayne, who, despite his active support of the plan, also thought that the Flats should have been reserved for industrial redevelopment and that retail development should take place on the lakefront. Another opponent was CASE WESTERN RESERVE UNIVERSITY economist, and Mayor Campbell’s brother-in-law, Ed Morrison.
Mitchell Schnieder, President of First Interstate, in turn, argued that the project would generate $2.5 million per year in tax revenues. The developer also claimed that Steelyard Commons would create 1,800 jobs which would generate a further income tax yield of $700,000. Furthermore, since the big box retailers that Steelyard Commons was trying to lure only existed in the suburbs, Schnieder argued that the city was losing out on further sales tax revenue.
There were other challenges too. First, there was a potentially costly environmental cleanup effort that would need to be undertaken, though Schnieder insisted that the site was already relatively clean because of the nature of the manufacturing which took had taken place there. Secondly, highway access needed to be improved. While several major interstates ran close the site, access was limited only by via Quigley Road. This was to be solved via a $10 million Ohio Department of Transportation which would link Quigley to Jennings road as well as by constructing a ramp which would connect Quigley to the OH-176 exit ramp and West 14th Street. The third challenge was how to preserve the history of the site. This solution came by the creation of the a Steel Heritage Museum. Developers also planned to incorporate salvaged objects as public art and certain design features reflected the site’s industrial history. In October of 2004, the Cleveland Planning Commission approved the site and design concepts.
In December of 2004 the city announced that it was negotiating lease terms with retail giant Walmart for Steelyard Commons. This reignited the opposition once more. In the early to mid-1980s, Walmart began to expand from its rural and suburban roots into major cities. A prime factor in their growth in these areas was by including grocery space on their sales floor. Local grocery retailers and the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 880 immediately voiced opposition and they were joined by Cleveland Councilman Joe Cimperman. They claimed that Walmart would drive other local grocers out of business and also that they wouldn’t hire union labor. The latter was significant because Walmart’s wage and benefits packages were $10 per hour less than those of union shops. The symbolism of Walmart, with its long history of union busting, landing on the site of the former LTV Steel finishing mill was obvious.
Cimperman proposed a law restricting Walmart’s grocery space to a mere 90 square feet. Another plan to protect local grocers was proposed by Cleveland City Council which would prevent Walmart from selling groceries until 2013. While the battle raged between the community and Walmart, in January of 2005 the City Planning Commission formally approved the Steelyard Commons project by a 3-1 vote.
In March of 2005 Walmart announced that it would not open a store in Steel Yard Commons and this was seen as a possible death blow to the entire project. Schnieder blamed City Council for repelling them over the grocery issue and he quickly and quietly went to work behind the scenes to bring Walmart back. In May of 2005 First Interstate applied for a building permit on the Walmart site. Under Ohio law, if a permit has been issued, property owners are only subject to existing laws and not those which were passed later. The grocery ban that was working its way through City Council was effectively useless and the biggest hurdle for First Interstate and the city had been cleared. Walmart recommitted to the project and Steelyard Commons was revived. Soon after, Target, Home Depot, and Best Buy signed on as tenants.
In 2007, Steelyard Commons was complete. Home Depot, on the northern end of the development officially opened its doors on February first of that year thus marking the beginning of business at the site.