When I was a child, my parents used to take me downtown to visit my grandfather’s law office on Public Square. We rode the Rapid Transit system, which rumbled down the tracks from our home in Shaker Heights through the industrial areas of Cleveland’s east side and then spilled into the belly of the Terminal Tower.
I would gaze out the window, watching with wonderment the neighborhoods and buildings we passed by. Even as a young boy in the early 1970s, I understood that we lived in an industrial town, built on more than a century of manufacturing.
Today, my daily commute from Shaker Heights to SBN’s offices in Lakewood takes me along I-490 past the LTV Steel plant. I still look out the window, much like I did as a child, and watch the smoke stacks where plumes of smoke and shafts of fire used to rise into the air as a symbol of the steel maker’s fortitude.
Despite LTV’s misfortune, not much has changed. Cleveland remains a manufacturing town.
There has been a disturbing trend over the past decade as the region’s business leaders have disagreed about what the region’s economic future is. Because of this, there has been no clear leadership to replace the erstwhile business generals of the past. Too many groups have unsuccessfully chased the cold vapors of what they thought was the next great thing.
Admittedly, I got caught up in the dot-com mania, purported by national pundits to make its way into Cleveland and turn the region into the next Silicon Valley. Besides stepping up SBN’s reporting on e-business and technology, I stuck both feet in the water and plunged into two pie-in-the-sky ventures.
Luckily, I was smart enough to keep my day job.
And, like my brethren in the media, I’ve kept a close eye on the rising swell of biotechnology. With success stories like Athersys, it has been all too easy to anoint it the next great thing. The truth is that it’s not.
Lost among this mindless chase for a single economic cure-all has been the gradual embrace and integration of technology into the area’s traditional manufacturing base. It’s being used to improve productivity, reduce overhead and make companies more competitive.
But manufacturing is just one piece of our economic future. The region also has a rich tradition in banking and finance, health care, and education. With the addition of the emerging biotech industry, today’s regional economy stands at an important crossroads. Simply put, which direction are we going to go?
That is a question that’s difficult to answer, but one thing is certain. There is no panacea waiting to be discovered.
Cleveland’s economic future lies not with some overnight sensation, but in its economic past. Success hinges on our ability to recognize that and use it to develop the future.
As business executives and leaders, that responsibility is in all of our hands. Now is not the time to forsake it.