From the Good Ideas File: almost anything can be rehabbed, especially in Cleveland

The book emphasizes that the things that make your community unique are what makes them valuable, and for large swathes of the American Midwest, some of our most unique features are old buildings.  Repurposing an old building for a new use takes creativity, and it’s not always the rock-botton-price approach, but 49 times out of 50 it results in something that will win you more attention, and probably help win more sales, investment, caring residents, than almost any new construction approach.  And a lot of times, although of course not all, it costs less to rehab than to build something new.

My hometown of Cleveland is one of those places that has gotten pretty good at this, thanks to 30+ years of struggling with the economic tsunami of change and the existence of a huge number of buildings that were built for a use that doesn’t need them anymore.

This article is a travel piece, so it’s overly fluffy and glosses over a lot of the very serious problems that don’t make happy reading, but I thought it was worth sharing with you because of this description of a building that I knew in Iteration #2:

The Greater Cleveland Aquarium (2000 Sycamore Street, 216-862-8803;, on the other side of the Cuyahoga River, also just a few minutes from downtown, is another repurposed attraction. This 40,000-square-foot water wonderland was constructed in 1892 to provide electricity to streetcars. It was empty for more than a half-century and reopened in 1989 as an entertainment complex, but was converted into its current use when a New Zealand company called Marinescape decided to open its first American aquarium there. Visitors — close to 700,000 since the January 2012 opening — can soak up the building’s historic structure: there are exposed brick walls; giant steel girders frame the pool with more than two dozen stingrays; a jellyfish tank is inside one of the two smokestacks; and fish tanks are inside two coal tunnels. “Coming here is not your typical aquarium experience,” said Tami Brown, the general manager.

Note three things in that paragraph:

  • The building was vacant for more than half a century.  What do you think it looked like/smelled like in the early 1980s?  Worse than that.  Would you think that derelict was worth sinking money into?
  • The building has gone through its second rehab.   The entertainment center was cool back in the day, but entertainment has changed since then.  Tons of old industrial buildings in the area where the acquarium is, which is called the Flats, went through the entertainment center phase and have now transitioned into a more complex mix of things.  Some more successful than others, but even for fixed-up buildings, change isn’t the inevitable.
  • Contrary to sometimes popular belief, there are a whole lot of options between “Restore to exactly what is looked like in 18__” and “Knock that sucker down.”  People who rehab old buildings know that, and part of what demands that creativity that I talked about before is the realization that you have to find a delicate balance between keeping the things that make it unique and making it work, functionally and economically.  We usually frame those debates between preservation purists and other as  fights, but I think we should view them more as a necessary part of creative tension.  In hundreds of cases, that tension ends up with a compromise that people look back on decades later and say “Yeah, that was the right call.”

In my own decades in this work, I have seen more situations where I can count where an insanely beat-up old building — sometimes little more than a frame or a shell — gets rehabilitated into something that has huge value for the property owner, the business, and the community (which has kind of a big stake in its own future, after all).  The only real barrier is creativity and the determination to find a way.

I could show you a hundred examples, but instead perhaps you should check out or your state historic preservation agency to tap some of those stories of the impossible become possible.  And don’t let someone pressure your community with “it’s too old…it’s too strange… it’s too beat up…tear it down.”  They could be right, but chances are, they’re wrong.

The Online Public Engagement Emporium launches

The Local Economy Revolution book doesn’t talk specifically about online public engagement, but it does emphasize some of the factors that necessitate change in how we do public engagement – and make good online public engagement so critical today:

  • the people we need to get involved aren’t all gentleman farmers anymore (they have a lot more demands on their time and come from a whole lot get more varied perspectives;
  • People are increasingly used to being able to flip between analog and digital communication methods, even to talk to the same people about the same topics, and
  • Everyone has the potential to be their own newspaper publisher – your residents can get their opinions, their frustrations and their demand for change in front of more people faster than ever before.

Some of you may know that I am the Managing Editor of EngagingCities, an online magazine that shares news about the intersection of public engagement, urban planning and online technologies.  I also use to produce a white paper summarizing online public engagement tools and platforms at the Wise Economy Workshop.  But trying to keep that thing updated proved to be almost impossible.  They just keep inventing new ones too quickly!

As a result, I just moved all of the last white paper’s content over to a new web site:


In my mind, I’d like to have kind of a circus theme on this thing to go with the “Emporium” language — big top, lions jumping through rings, elephants, etc. (No clowns – they’re creepy…).  But since I don’t know if thing can pay for itself yet, it will have to wait for the dressing-up.

On this site, you’ll find a summary of several online public engagement platforms, some definitions of terms, and a few options if you decide you’d like some help with selecting the platform that will best fit your needs.  I believe that each tool has unique advantages and limitations, and my intent when I am advising is to find the best match between client and platform.  So I worked out a pretty simple (and cheap) way to help you get that advice. One of the things that I’ve learned from my tech friends is that you don’t have to know exactly where you’re going with something before you throw it out into the internet universe.  Sometimes you’re just throwing spaghetti.  So

I don’t know exactly what this site is going to turn into.  We may add content to help readers better understand the different options, but none of that is worked out at the moment.

In the meantime, if you have an online public participation start up that fits the Emporium’s criteria, send me a note at  If you represent one of the sites that’s already on here and something’s out of date or just plain wrong (Really?  That could happen? Damn right it could), please send me a note as well.  We’re not going to list every tiny widget and setting here, but I want to make sure this thing gives people the right place to start.

Deals and more Deals: 20% off print book via

I love my e-reader, but sometimes you just want a regular paper book – especially if you’re hanging by the pool or the beach.  And if you really want to look like one of the smart kids, you’ll want to get caught on the beach reading The Local Economy Revolution  or Why This Work Matters, right?  fat penguin flying majestically over Toledo

Of course you do.  Of course.

From now ’til June 30, (the producer of the print local economy revolution coverversion of Wise Fool Press books) is offering a sweet 20% discount on all print copies.  All you have to do is put in the coupon code JFS20 at checkout.  That’s a pretty sweet deal!

You can go to either book’s web site above and click the print version link on the “Get the Book Page,” or you can go to Lulu directly — either way, same difference.

Enjoy and happy reading!

Why this work matters cover


Super special offer: 50% Discount on Local Government and Small Business webinar

There’s a whole chapter in the book that talks about how the basic characteristics of small businesses today means that local governments have no choice but to completely rework how they interact with them.

I have the great priviledge of teaching a webinar for Lorman Education Services next month on one of my favorite topics. It’s titled,

Leaders or Feeders: What Governments Can Do To Help Grow Small Businesses


I’ll be teaching this live webinar on July 23, 1:00 PM Eastern Daylight Time. And the good folks at Lorman are offering it to you friends of the Wise Economy Workshop at a special (ridiculous, even) 50% discount. So you don’t wanna miss this.

You can read the description and register with that massive discount at

Feel free to share this to your friends, colleagues, random strangers, whoever. Helping local government people work successfully with their community’s small business gets more important – and more difficult – all the time, and I think this webinar will help them make a bigger and more powerful impact on their communities.


From the Good Ideas File: incentives that actually have a demonstrated good impact

I’m often assumed to be totally opposed to economic development incentives.  I’m not.  I just want the benefit to the broader community to be worth what we’re spending.  And a lot of times we don’t know, or we don’t ask, or we don’t want to know…. or we don’t ask because we don’t want to know because  they probably don’t.

One big exception to that, pretty consistently, has been historic preservation incentive tax credits.

There’s good evidence from all over the country that historic preservation investment tax credits work — that they trigger many times more in additional reinvestment, that they fill critical market gaps to return economically non-functioning properties to productive, tax-generating, decent-job-creating use.  And time and again they show that a good rehab of a small number of strategic buildings in a struggling neighborhood can be that long-sought-after “catalyst” to reinvigorating a community.  It’s not a matter of a big new project.  It’s a matter of fixing up a few of the old things that we have, and as a result teaching the market that a real economic opportunity awaits them under the boarded-up windows.

And yet, politicians keep trying to cut them.  This is dumb.  Just dumb.

This opinion piece from North Carolina’s sums the situation up pretty nicely:

What if North Carolina had an effective, proven way to preserve historic properties, create thousands of jobs and attract millions of dollars from private investors?

In fact, we do. North Carolina’s Historic Preservation Tax Credit, an economic incentive for the otherwise prohibitively expensive rehabilitation of historic buildings, is a resounding economic success. Yet the program is at risk. Eliminating this incentive – which pays for itself many times over – would cost North Carolina jobs and discourage private investment at a time when our economy seems to be getting back on track.

Since 2001, the historic preservation program has attracted $1.4 billion of private investment and created an estimated 23,000 jobs. Projects in 90 of our 100 counties have leveraged these incentives by attracting private investment to preserve and improve historic properties. Qualifying projects receive a federal incentive that, combined with North Carolina’s, makes otherwise financial unfeasible rehabilitation projects work.

 Um, yeah.  And you can show the same thing all over the country.
As I articulated in the book, the point of an incentive should be to (1) overcome a market gap between what is feasible from purely private-sector sources today, and what could be, and (2) by doing so, create a substantial  benefit to a community over and beyond the benefits that might accrue to the property and business owners.  And note the “and” in that sentence.
Historic preservation investment tax credits, over and over and over again in the past 20+ years, have been show to do this.  Over and over again.  This should be a non-debate.  If anything, we should be trying to understand better why historic preservation investment tax credits have consistently performed so well, and had such consistent benefits, and such a relative lack of boondoggles and questionable deals compared to other kinds of incentives.  We ought to be learning from historic preservation tax credit programs how to make all incentives work better.  We should not be cutting them.
So don’t let your community/state/feds do something dumb.  Thanks.

Random Excerpt: the Paper Machine and the Gardener

This is a random excerpt from The Local Economy Revolution.  Yes, it was really randomly selected.  But the book is not random.  Want to learn more? Check it out here.

paper machine

This is a paper machine. My husband ran one in the 1990s.  I’ve often said it’s the only job he ever had where I actually could say what the heck he did all day.  He made paper.

A paper machine is a huge hunk of equipment.  The whole machine usually extends about a thousand feet from one end to the other, so it’s about the length of an urban city block.  It has lots of parts that whizz and hiss and rumble and make noises so loud you need ear protection, and sometimes the paper coming off the end of it breaks and sends clouds of fuzzy confetti flying everywhere. It looks like controlled chaos, managed power, in action.  It’s really kind of cool.


Despite looking so impressive, paper machines do something that’s basically pretty simple: they take a slurry of water and paper pulp, and they suck out the water and squash the pulp together to turn it into paper. There are several steps to the process, and sometimes there’s lotion or scent or something that gets introduced into it along the way, but fundamentally, that’s what the paper machine does.  Evaporate and squash.

As you might imagine, a machine this size has tons of controls — levers and inputs and electronic doodads, and the technicians who run the thing have to be pretty well trained to keep it all working.  But fundamentally, all the pieces that they can manipulate do one of two things: they take water out, or they squash paper fibers together.

We tend too often to think of our local economies as paper machines.  We have a handful of lever and dials that we know that we can push or pull, and we assume (or tell ourselves) that we can get the outcomes we want for our local economies by twiddling those controls.  Sometimes we call those controls incentives, sometimes they’re sewer lines or land that we can sell at a deep discount, sometimes they’re slick marketing materials designed to show potential businesses that “Hey!!! We are awesome!!!”

The problem is, our communities aren’t much like paper machines at all.  They’re more like forests or farms or gardens.

For a plant to grow requires a wide range of conditions — the right soils, the right amount of rain, the right amount of sun or shade, the right pollinating insects and the absence of the right kind of pests.  Some plants have higher ranges of tolerances than others — some of the flowers in my yard, for example, wilt when the temperature gets above 90, while the weeds could apparently survive a nuclear blast.

The main thing that makes a garden different from a paper machine, though, is the degree to which we lack direct control over many of those factors.  I can’t change the number of hours in a day that the sun shines, and I can’t ensure enough of a supply of the pollinators that my fruit trees want if something in the next yard over keeps eating them.

Not only do we lack direct control, we have to accept the fact that we lack direct control. Berating the sun to stay in the sky longer, or trying to pollinate each apple blossom by hand, don’t sound like helpful solutions.

Random Excerpt: Externalities R Us

Every so often, I open The Local Economy Revolution to a random location and copy down here what I find.  Intrigued by what you read? You can get the whole book here.  

The easiest unintended consequences to figure out are those that will impact me directly – the ones that will come back to bite me in the butt.  If I am thinking about putting an addition on my house that I really can’t afford, and doing so will put me at risk of being unable to pay all my other bills, then the potential unintended consequences of my choice to add onto my house are pretty obvious. Since I will have to deal directly and immediately with those unintended consequences, they are part of my system – that means that these consequences should be relatively easy to see, if I am honest with myself about what all might happen.  I might delude myself into thinking I can have it all, but that’s not failing to think ahead.  That’s just being a dumbass.

The hardest, and potentially most troubling, types of unintended consequences fall into a group that traditional invisible-hand economics call “externalities.”   These are the impacts of a decision that accrue to someone or something else — the impacts are external to the person or organization that made the decision.

Traditional economic theory placed externalities outside of the economy – the externality was experienced by someone other than the economic actors, so it was not part of the economic activity.  Terming something an “externality” was a way to exclude it from the equation.

Of course, it’s not that simple.

As I mentioned, my father and grandfather ran a small paint company in the 1960s and 1970s.  In those days, there were few rules regulating hazardous materials, and most of the compounds in paint hadn’t been officially recognized as hazardous anyways.  Like most paint factories, theirs generated lots of garbage – batches of paint that didn’t come out right, test pots, empty containers, broken equipment, etc.

The company was located on the edge of a steep gorge that ran through town … and standard operating procedure at the factory was to toss the cans, pots and other garbage over the hillside.  This wasn’t uncommon – people used to use that gorge to discard a lot of types of refuse.  I remember 1950s-era car fenders and mattresses in the brush along the hillside farther downriver.

The company closed in the early 1980s, and as far as I know all of the officers and stockholders are dead.  But the old paint cans on the side of the gorge are probably still leaking – my brothers, who still live in the area, have heard friends talk about seeing rainbow-colored scum on the creek surface downstream from the factory site.

When the day comes when that property gets cleaned up, it won’t be my dad’s company doing it.  Instead, it will probably be the state Environmental Protection Agency.  Which means that, even though I didn’t do the polluting, as a taxpayer, I and all of my neighbors across the state will pick up the tab.