CLEVELAND — When Cleveland was making its pitch for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, they were one of many cities bidding for the honor of being the physical home to the hall — New York, Los Angeles, Memphis, Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia, to name a few.
As a college student in Philly at the time, I remember attending a rally that organizers threw together with Chubby Checker to show the city’s support. (I still have a button from it.)
The rally, as I recall, drew just a couple hundred people, and the L.A. Times would later write of that city’s bid: “the best-known rockers from there are Fabian, Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker and Frankie Avalon--and the only way they deserve to get in a Rock Hall of Fame is with an admission ticket.” Ouch. The Times though wasn’t big on Cleveland either; their vote was for Memphis.
But there was something Cleveland had the other cities didn’t. Beyond Alan Freed and the early ties to Rock and Roll, they had the people of Northeast Ohio all in on the bid. While I mentioned the rally I cut class to attend in Philly drew maybe a couple hundred, the organizers in Cleveland presented the committee charged with making the decision the signatures of more than 600,000 people — supporters who vowed not only to make Cleveland the heart of Rock and Roll, but to make the Hall of Fame the heart of this city.
Cleveland would be awarded the hall later that year, and since 1995, this I.M. Pei-designed cathedral to rock has stood quietly on the shores of Lake Erie. It is a musical mecca identifiable around the world that has consistently drawn over a half million visitors a year, an astounding 80% of whom come daily from outside of Cleveland.
But while the Hall is something we share with the outside world, it is uniquely ours, something we identify with and proudly lay claim to as we travel around the country and the world. If you said Cleveland to someone in the 80s, they’d probably think of the burning river or some other misimpression created by late-night comics. Thirty-five years after landing the hall, if you say you’re from Cleveland while traveling, they’re more likely to mention Rock and Roll.
"I think they think of that before the Browns,” said Rene Jacoby of Lake Placid, New York. “It’s definitely a brand of Cleveland, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame." Rene was in Cleveland for a conference and stayed an extra day to tour the hall.
She’s among the Rock Hall visitors that quietly spend an average of $349,000 a day here, a 2017 study found. And the Rock Hall's success has, in turn, led to other successes. As Cleveland has grown as a destination for big events like the RNC, the MLB and NBA All-Star games, and the NFL Draft, the Rock Hall is the place that each time helped seal the deal.
“When we are looking at pitching anything, meetings, conventions, major sporting events, knowing that those people can rent out the Rock Hall for a party, that their attendees can go into the Rock Hall when they’re here, that we have something that’s so unique and so different they’re not going to get anywhere else is a huge plus for us," said Destination Cleveland President and CEO David Gilbert.
Cleveland raised eyebrows in 1986 when they pledged $65 million towards the Hall’s $92 million construction cost. The return on that investment at last count was $200 million in economic activity a year. That's something that can be calculated — the intangible that can't is how this place makes us feel about our city, our region and ourselves, and for that we say thank you, and rock on.