As part of my left-brained life, I was in Canton, in northeast Ohio, last week, for the Ohio Community Development Corporations Association. It’s a statewide membership advocacy group for all the CDCs and many other organizations in the state.
Only 80,000 folk in Canton – but some of the most collaborative folk I’ve ever met. In this medium sized town, there are more than 50 neighborhood organizations. The Mayor gives a lot of credit for Canton’s survival and now growth to those neighborhoods and their creative partnerships.
I chose the downtown neighborhood tour, which was led by the City’s arts advocate and a Chamber of Commerce rep working closely with him. I love downtowns, so that was part of the reason for my choice. The other reason was that I found it hard to believe that a city of 80,000 even had an arts advocate, especially in this economic climate.
Turns out, they hired him because the city’s leadership had decided that the arts were the way to economic survival. Talk about innovative and creative and forward thinking! Robb started small, with a project to pay artists to paint the trash containers. Just 3 years later, they have First Friday events that draw 3,000 into the center city, very few vacant buildings, lots of art venues – and some of the best restaurants in the region.
The Chamber guy was talking about a particular storefront project that had been done very quickly. I questioned that, since it was part of the City of Canton’s plan, and cities have so many rules to follow that nothing happens quickly. Turns out, the Chamber liked the idea – and simply paid for it themselves, in partnership with the City. Wow!
Our next stop on the tour was even more impressive. A huge old vacant building has been rehabbed into the perfect venue for your wedding reception in Canton, with a first class restaurant coming, and a jazz club / restaurant already completed (owned by a former steel worker, whose job had gone away). It’s LEED certified, so it’s green – easy to breathe in there – and it’s owned by the Metropolitan Housing Authority! I am still unable to wrap my mind around that. Hard to imagine the Housing Authority, the City, the Chamber and arts advocates anywhere collaborating on any one of those pieces, let along the whole package, in any city that I know of.
These folks looked at the future, didn’t find much to like in what they saw, and changed. They found ways to work together. Small town mid-America – and pointing the way for the rest of us.