Making Change: Image Matters

Featured Audio

When Koula Lazar (lay-zar) was a teenager, she thought spending time in Ohio City meant taking your life in your own hands.

KOULA LAZAR: During high school we used to go to the Agora... one girl drove and in order to get to Agora, she would cut through west 25th. I would jump in back of the car and I'd say, "are you crazy, what are you doing driving down this street?"

Forty years later, Lazar is one of many store owners on West 25th Street enjoying Ohio City's recent renaissance. It's been four years since Lazar moved her store - called Something Different - to the neighborhood. She says when she was checking out Ohio City as a possible location for her store, she recognized both the neighborhood's risks and potential, since it's home to the West Side Market.

KL: And we were aware that there were panhandlers. But it didn't bother us that much. But we saw the business, we saw the people that were going through the market. Now we needed to bring all those people from the market and head north from the market.

Over the past five years or so, merchants and residents of Ohio City, seem to have figured out how to attract the thousands of shoppers to stick around. New restaurants, boutiques, and markets have opened. And a new condo building is under construction right on West 25th Street. Long-time resident and former city council woman Helen Knipe Smith says the "new face" was really 30 years in the making. She says the efforts were mostly random, but the thing that boosted Ohio City's image the most was the makeover of Market Street, directly across from the West Side Market.

HELEN SMITH: You walk down that street and people sort of stood up straighter and thought, "This is a cool neighborhood and it's mine." Y'know there was this whole attitude that sort of happened with this street. So it was not just an image for outsiders but it was for people within the neighborhood to really be proud of it and say this is mine.

It's also been a financial windfall. In the past year, the Near West Side Neighborhood Development corporation reports more than 20-million dollars have been invested in commercial and residential development projects. Dave Sharkey, vice president at Progressive Real Estate, says housing investments are paying off big for those who got in ten or twenty years ago.

DAVE SHARKEY: We're now seeing renovations over 200. We've seen construction in the mid-twos. We've seen some renovations hit the 300 mark.

Yes, he's talking 300-thousand dollars. Sharkey says with its dubious image removed, Ohio City is attracting those who previously saw it as too great a risk - and even these new settlers value what everyone says is the neighborhood's dominant image:

DAVE SHARKEY: It's a very diverse neighborhood both racially and ethnically and also economically and I know that a lot of people who have lived here and have lived here a long time want to maintain that.

Helen smith backs that up...

HS: If they had to vote tomorrow on it, they'd all go to their polls and say they want to keep a diverse neighborhood

Including shop-owner Koula Lazar:

KL: But it is, it's very eclectic. And being from an ethnic background, I feel right at home here.

Now, the appeal of diversity may not be the sole factor that's lifted the neighborhood's fortune, but it probably didn't hurt.

ROB DEROCKER: Well it certainly plays into business development and the attraction of industry.

Rob DeRocker (dee-rock-er) is executive vice president with Development Counsellors International - a New York-based company that's worked on marketing strategies and economic development with cities from Tacoma, Washington to Geneva, Switzerland. DeRocker says when companies shop around for new markets, the first thing they do is draw up a list of possible places to target.

RD: You're not going to make the long list if A) your image is a negative one or B) it's a non-image, which is the case with a lot of cities.

DeRocker says once a place like Northeast Ohio can define an image for itself, it has to broadcast that message as much as possible to the rest of the world. He says over time - even 30 years, as was the case with Ohio City - people will stop thinking, "Yeah, Cleveland, so what," and start saying, "huh, that's Cleveland?" To get there, the region has to capitalize on its physical and financial assets, says Joe Roman executive director of Cleveland Tomorrow. That means a new lakefront, but it also means new seed funds and business policies.

JOE ROMAN: And those are the easiest ways to begin changing an image is to have real stories - even anecdotal as they may be at the beginning - and continue to build that track record. Everything becomes easier as the track record gets bigger and more robust.

It may sound like pie-in-in-the-sky wishfulness, but Roman says it comes down to a place - be it all of Northeast Ohio, or only Ohio City - knowing its own identity first, so others recognize the image.

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