Doug Clifton: Cleveland needs more than LeBron to restore its greatness

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I heard the first crack when a friend of mine called 15 years ago. He knew I was considering a move from my job as executive editor of the Miami Herald, a job I’d held for eight years.

“I have some good news and some bad news,” he said. “A top editor’s job has opened in one of the Newhouse papers. The bad news is that it’s in Cleveland.”

The memory of that conversation came roaring back as the LeBron James drama played out on TV and in the papers over the last few weeks. Like LeBron, I gave up Miami for Cleveland.

When I decided to take the Cleveland job, the cracks kept coming, both from Miami and Cleveland. “You’re doing what?” I was asked from most of Miami friends. “Cleveland?” they said, question marks dripping from every syllable. And in Cleveland even Clevelanders asked in wonder, “How could you leave Miami for Cleveland? Are you crazy?”

I wasn’t. Turns out Cleveland wasn’t bad news at all. My eight years there were as rewarding as my eight in Miami. And Cleveland was a city whose reality was far different than the place headline writers and comedians described.

To them it was “The mistake by the lake.” And the city of the burning river. And the town whose first lady passed up dinner with the President of the United States in favor of her bowling night. The kindest thing anyone said was that Cleveland was a city of past glories, which was an acknowledgement that Cleveland at least ONCE had glory.

In truth it had a lot of glory. It once housed the headquarters of more fortune 500 companies than any other city in America. It had — and still has — one of the world’s best symphony orchestras that plays in a grand symphony hall and has been doing so for the last hundred or so years. It has an art museum that is the envy of all but three or four in the country, a theater district that rivals Lincoln Center, a world class hospital in the Cleveland Clinic, some of the most livable residential communities in the country and a wonderful park system.

 Most of all that was the product of America’s old economy, which was based on making things like steel and cars and widgets of all kinds. Cleveland was especially good at that.

Cleveland inventors racked up patents like short order cooks fry eggs. Giant law firms sprang to life to represent hundreds of innovative new businesses. John D. Rockefeller invented the oil industry in Cleveland and one of his partners, Henry Flagler, was talked into extending his railroad service to Miami by a Clevelander who became known as the “mother of Miami,” Julia Tuttle.

Tuttle visited Miami back in the late 1800s, stayed a few years and returned to Cleveland where she remained until the lure of Miami’s tropical wilderness pulled her back.

So this tug of war between Miami and Cleveland isn’t so novel after all. In fundamental ways, each city struggles to get a fix on the new world order; they just do it from opposite ends of the telescope.

Miami has only now added a major museum to its cultural life and it still must turn to Cleveland for a symphony orchestra. Cleveland toils at reinvention and struggles to overcome its inferiority complex.

Cleveland thought it could trigger a rejuvenation on the shoulders of pro sports teams and so erected three top-notch sports venues all within walking distance of the downtown center. Without a winning team for 50 years, Clevelanders banked on LeBron to erase that blot. That’s why they so mourned his departure and have so rejoiced at his return.

But Cleveland, like Miami, needs to understand that winning teams don’t change the economic equation; entrepreneurial energy and imagination do. New York isn’t the city it is because of the Yankees, San Francisco the Giants or Boston the Red Socks. When Cleveland was great, pro sports were in their infancy.

Cleveland needs to warmly welcome LeBron and be happy to have him back. But it’s going to take a modern-day Rockefeller to restore its greatness.

Doug Clifton is the former editor of The Miami Herald and the Plain Dealer in Cleveland, Ohio. He lives in Fort Lauderdale.