The Say-Town Lowdown

This column usually stays pretty close to home, focusing on San Antonio and Bexar county. This week I’d like to take a detour north, for the tale of another city, with the aim of finding a moral for our own community.

Cleveland has long been one of the nation’s great urban basket cases. Despite the presence of Major League Baseball, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association (remember our encounter with the Cavs?), the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and a “world class” symphony orchestra, the city itself has suffered. Cleveland’s population dropped from 751,000 in 1970 to just 478,403 in 2000. And not long ago, the Census Bureau dubbed it the nation’s poorest large city.

But wait. Salvation is at hand.

Cuyahoga county commissioners (the county government that covers Cleveland and many of its suburban communities) recently voted to increase the local sales tax to build a big new convention center.

But not just any $450-million convention center. A convention center linked to a “Medical Mart,” proposed to be developed by Chicago’s Merchandise Mart Properties, the owner of the Merchandise Mart in Chicago and a number of other furniture and design trade marts around the country. The promises and rhetoric are just amazing.

Cleveland, renowned for its hospitals and medical-research institutions (you knew that), could soon become “the medical trade show capital of the world.” You read that correctly — the world. According to Merchandise Mart’s Christopher Kennedy, there are currently 571 medical conventions and tradeshows each year. All Cleveland needs to do is attract each of those once a decade, and it will be home to 57 medical meetings with more than 300,000 attendees every year.

The results for Cleveland will be an “unprecedented success,” with a product, Kennedy promises, “That could create the kind of economic engine that could revitalize Cleveland, rebrand its image, support its rebirth and ultimately attract and retain the intellectual capital, the minds of the great researchers and medical leaders who will be proud to call Cleveland home.”

The optimism about the Medical Mart-convention center combo isn’t limited to Kennedy. According to Dr. Toby Cosgrove, CEO of the world-renowned Cleveland Clinic, in a commentary published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the new mart “displaying everything from imaging machines and hospital furniture to scrubs and surgical instruments, year-round,” would give Cleveland “an unparalleled opportunity to become a global center for medical commerce.” The end result: “This would bolster the ability of institutions like Cleveland Clinic, Case Western Reserve University and University Hospitals Health Systems to attract and retain world-class talent, spurring additional economic activity in the form of new research, new products, residential growth and commercial development.”

Dr. Cosgrove’s column was headlined “Medical Mart Would Offer Cleveland a Shot in the Arm.” You can chuckle, but seriously, the official website for the project is Please go and look for yourself.

To me, the prospects of the Medical Mart and convention center appear modest at best. Cleveland will be competing for medical meetings against Boston, San Francisco, Washington, San Diego, Orlando, and Chicago. San Antonio, too, as we plan to enlarge our own convention center. Even with the possible boost of the Medical Mart, Cleveland faces tough going. Developers built marts for computers, like Dallas’s Infomart, in the 1980s and found that they failed to attract both manufacturers and visitors. The notion of a mart for medical devices and equipment is totally unproved in the marketplace, yet the promise of community rebirth all depends on that success..

There’s a moral in Cleveland’s tale for all of us. Cities love to go for the brass ring. Local developers and politicos regularly embrace the notion that there’s one big project, one major deal, one grand event that will somehow reshape urban destiny and right all that ails a community. It won’t work for Cleveland, just as a new ballpark for the Indians and an arena for the Cavs didn’t turn the city around.

But here in San Antonio, we play the same “silver-bullet” game. The Alamodome will get us into the big leagues. We’ll somehow attract the Saints (or maybe the Marlins). The coming of Microsoft will put us in the high-tech elite. KellyUSA (now Port San Antonio) will become an international logistics hub. And I almost forgot what the Pan Am Games and the Alamo Grand Prix were going to do.

Not for Cleveland. Not for us, either.