A year in, County “Surge” in Central neighborhood still a work in progress

It’s been more than a year since Cuyahoga County executive Armond Budish announced a “surge” of support to lift up the Central neighborhood in Cleveland. Some residents say they’ve noticed little material change since.
Walter Patton, a local activist and lifelong Central resident, sits in the bleachers of Dwayne Browder Field in Central Avenue as he discusses the challenges the neighborhood faces, and the specific help it needs. Community advocate Browder was a mentor of his. (Photo by Conor Morris)

Cuyahoga County Executive Armond Budish announced a revitalization plan more than a year ago that focused on “surging” support into Cleveland’s Central neighborhood.

At the time, he said this “Central Surge” plan had the potential to serve as a model for uplifting other economically depressed Cleveland neighborhoods. However, some Central residents consider the promise Budish made in the May 2021 announcement to be more hype than substance.

Walter Patton is one of those people. He has lived in Central, a majority-Black neighborhood near downtown Cleveland, his entire life, like his family before him. His great-great grandmother, Lula Patton, started living in the neighborhood in the 1930s and bore witness to redlining practices that led to disinvestment in the neighborhood. 

Patton said he’s tired of the endless cycle of generational trauma, poverty and violence that has come to define his home, which has a 68.8% poverty rate, according to U.S. Census data.

“There was one guy that was murdered in my backyard last week, and before that there was a young kid, he was murdered by a hit and run and he was only nine years old,” he said in a June interview.

So Patton wants his neighborhood to receive additional resources. But he’s seen and heard about little change in Central since Budish announced the Surge. And he worries that the resources that do trickle into the neighborhood will just serve to spur gentrification.

“I’m just afraid that a lot of the people that grew up here and have history here won’t have one in the next year or two,” he said.

So far through the Surge, Budish’s administration has promoted several initiatives, including a new park, low-cost internet service for residents, and planting trees. However, advocates like Patton say priorities should include bringing a grocery store to Central (you can read more about that here) and providing more mental health counseling services to help residents cope with violence and other trauma.

Residents complained to Budish about this inattention to community priorities during an event in August 2021. Gwen Garth, a local artist and activist, recently recalled how she was among them.

“No one from the county reached out to the residents,” she recalled. “The people that the county partnered with were elected officials and a CDC (community development corporation), and not ‘on the ground workers.’”

Garth joined others in successfully lobbying the Budish administration to form a steering committee, made up of Central residents, to provide input on Surge initiatives. Some concrete progress has been made on Surge initiatives, both on the county’s goals it set for itself and on other projects suggested by the committee members, members said. Still, residents are concerned that the county is missing critical pieces of the puzzle, particularly when it comes to getting people employed.

Dawn Glasco, a steering committee member and Central resident, said a lack of affordable childcare for residents is one gap the committee identified. She hopes the county will try to address this through the Surge. And Patton and Glasco both said mental health resources are seriously needed. 

“If organizations and institutions could respond to these needs, I think we’ll see an increase in the amount of people who are employed,” she said.

Meanwhile, a clock is ticking on Budish’s administration, with his term ending at the end of this year. It will be up to the next administration whether to take up the charge on the Surge, try a different approach or scrap the entire project.

That’s according to Bill Mason, chief of staff for Budish, who is largely considered the architect of the Surge plans. Mason acknowledged the county still has lots of work left to do in Central, but said the formation of the steering committee of local residents last year has helped the county center the community’s needs. 

“This is a pilot project we started… and hopefully this is going to be successful and it’s going to bear fruit, then we can do it in another neighborhood,” he said.

This is a small sample of some of the needs in the Central neighborhood noted by the community during the event in mid-August 2021. (Photo by Conor Morris)

So what exactly is the plan for the Surge?

There’s no official “plan” that has been released publicly for the Surge, although the county has created a website that should be going live soon that outlines what’s been done so far through the project.

But Budish did announce a set of priorities in May 2021 and during a public meeting in Central that included an assortment of goals, from job training and youth opportunities to encouraging development in the neighborhood.

Mason said serious progress has been made on a number of those goals.

* Mason said design plans are underway, with construction hopefully starting in late fall, for a $4.8 million project to build a park outside the Central Recreation Center, including a new basketball court and splash pads for children. This is a project in tandem with the city of Cleveland, which is renovating the recreation center itself.

* The initiative to bring low-cost Internet from local nonprofit DigitalC to residents is progressing slowly, with about 168 residents signed up. Its goal is 500 residents, Chief Innovation Office Catherine Tkachyk said.

* The county has a $100,000 initiative to plant 85 trees in the neighborhood, with some young people in the neighborhood being hired to do so in partnership with Holden Forests & Gardens. So far, 35 trees have been planted.

* The county helped the workforce development nonprofit Youth Opportunities Unlimited (Y.O.U) get 320 young applicants from the Central neighborhood alone for Y.O.U’s summer jobs program through community engagement efforts in partnership with the steering committee, county spokesperson Mary Louise Madigan said.

* The county also held an expungement clinic in the Central neighborhood to help people get their prior convictions expunged so that they don’t have that stain on their records as they try to apply for work.

Progress has also been made toward getting other local residents signed up with jobs, with 24 Central residents hired for positions with the county. Mason said the steering committee has provided invaluable help and feedback on the county’s workforce development efforts in the neighborhood. 

This included building a “pipeline” between the county’s human resources department and residents in the neighborhood.

“They (steering committee) have been putting together a communication plan… that starts with them in different ways all using their own resources to get the message out to residents, some by door knocking, some by being in institutions that are in the neighborhood and making themselves available to help them,” he said.

Finally, a job coach was also made available by OhioMeansJobs, the state job employment service, who has helped walk the residents through the process of applying for jobs with the county, Mason said. OhioMeansJobs has offered further job training to employees with Central businesses and so far, two businesses have shown interest, he added, although he said that program isn’t working “as well as he’d like,” and is in the process of being reworked.

“Gaps” that need to be addressed

Glasco, the steering committee member who is also manager of engagement and social innovation for the Cleveland Central Promise Neighborhood initiative, said she saw a disconnect between the Surge’s employment efforts and the needs of residents

She said the county should consider easing burdensome requirements for documents and simplifying lengthy application processes for its services. And she said these issues have real-life consequences. 

For example, spokesperson Madigan said only about 130 of the 320 applicants from Central made it through to orientation for the Y.O.U summer jobs program.

“We’re still trying to figure out why that is,” Madigan said.

Glasco said document requirements and the lengthy orientation process might be one reason why.

“Some of us who are working to support families in this space found that not only are a birth certificate and a social security card and proof of income needed, we’ve heard things such as getting a power of attorney letter for a day to sign documents on behalf of a student,” Glasco said. “We also heard about a death certificate needing to be brought in, and a police report.”

Glasco said “easier on-ramps” are needed for assistance and employment programs operated by nonprofits and government agencies. She suggested those entities spend time learning from residents what it’s like to go through application processes.

Ashley B., a local childhood advocate who lives in Central, talks about the need for mental health services targeted toward youth in the neighborhood during a community engagement event in mid-August 2021. (Photo by Conor Morris)

Patton, the community advocate, said more resources should be devoted to community-centric efforts to address the neighborhood’s mental health needs. That’s why he started Ghetto Therapy nights, a free meeting every Wednesday where residents are connected to licensed therapists. Patton believes the Surge should make mental health services a priority. 

“We need more resource centers like that that caters to trauma, that caters to emotional health, because that’s what everyone is going through in the Central community… is generational trauma, and it’s not going to be getting any better,” he said.

Garth, another steering committee member, said the Surge makes no effort to address adult literacy either, which is another barrier to employment for Central residents. Meanwhile, the neighborhood has been without a grocery store for roughly three years. Patton said that’s another need that has gone unaddressed by the Surge. You can read more about that here.

This story is a part of the Northeast Ohio Solutions Journalism Collaborative’s Making Ends Meet project. NEO SoJo is composed of 18-plus Northeast Ohio news outlets including The Land.

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