by Ben Worthen

Infrastructure: Cleveland a Pioneer in Municipal Network

Aug 15, 20063 mins

Cleveland missed out on the economic boom of the 1990s, which was largely driven by knowledge work. Only about 20 percent of the area’s residents have college degrees, and the local economy is still dominated by manufacturing. During the past decade, employment and wage growth in Northeast Ohio were about half the national average, and between 2000 and 2002, taxable income dropped by $2 billion.

In an earlier era urban planners made policy decisions that reshaped cities for the industrial age. Lev Gonick, CIO of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, believed the city could stop its downward spiral and reshape itself for the information age through public investment in IT infrastructure. That idea became the OneCleveland project, which earned Case Western a 2006 CIO 100 Award. (Find the full coverage of this year’s honorees beginning on Page 44.)

By 2002, telecommunications companies had laid thousands of miles of fiber optic cable in the Cleveland area that were underused. Gonick pitched local business and nonprofit leaders the idea that they could use the unlit fiber to create an ultra-high-speed network for local schools, nonprofits and business incubator spaces. Gonick argued that the network could help to make Cleveland an attractive location for entrepreneurs.

Then-Mayor Jane Campbell liked the idea and helped organize OneCleveland, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to pursuing Gonick’s vision. Case Western invested more than $2 million to buy the unlit fiber for the project. The telecommunications vendor City Signal Communications donated over $1 million worth of additional fiber, and Cisco donated the network equipment needed to make it operational.

Today more than 300 community organizations are connected to the OneCleveland network, including 46 health-care facilities and 100 schools. The network has also spurred private investment, most notably by biotech companies whose researchers have access through the network to grid computing resources donated by IBM. (Northeast Ohio biotech companies received $171 million in venture capital last year.) Cleveland rose to the top 25 last year in’s ranking of best cities for entrepreneurs, up from dead-last in 2002. And the Intelligent Community Forum, a nonprofit think tank that focuses on job creation and economic development, named Cleveland one of the top seven digital communities in the world.

What’s more, OneCleveland is viewed by municipal leaders around the world as a potential model for public investment in technology for economic development. Gonick has become the group’s ambassador. Over the course of two months this spring, Gonick recounted his story in Tuscon, Canada, Israel and Germany and to a class at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government attended by officials from all over, including Boise and Singapore.

“If you can do it in Cleveland you can do it anywhere,” ex-mayor Campbell, who lost her bid for reelection last November, tells the audience at Harvard (where she spent the first half of 2006 as a fellow). “This is the future of the urban landscape,” says Gonick. “I think it is as fundamental as the smokestacks of another era.”