CLEVELAND — Critics of Mayor Frank Jackson's proposal to create a new division of city government -- the Division of Special Events, Filming and Tourism -- have labeled it as duplicitous and hypocritical as the city has yet to resume issuing special event permits since the pandemic began. The lack of any current special event permitting process in place has also left small business owners, block club leaders, and event organizers in the lurch and wondering what -- if any -- events might be possible this summer.
According to the proposal presented to City Council by Jackson's administration, the current Office of Special Events and Marketing within the Division of Public Works would be discontinued and, in turn, the duties of that office would be performed by the newly-created Division of Special Events, Filming and Tourism. The ordinance said the new division would administer and supervise the issuance of special event permits and provide technical assistance, develop policy recommendations and serve as liaisons for major events. The proposal also calls for the new division to be overseen by a manager and commissioner, both of whom could collect a combined $226,000 in salary.
On Monday, Ward 17 Councilman Charles Slife posted a letter he sent to the mayor, criticizing the proposal, calling it evidence of 'mismatched priorities.'
"I have received no feedback from the Mayor's Office as to my letter. However, the feedback from the community has overwhelmingly been supportive. People view this as just outright hypocritical," Slife said. "The only value it would bring is a new civil servant in to manage things that already occur. We have had an Office of Special Events for years that has successfully managed the [Republican National Convention in 2016] and other major events. We have a track record."
Slife also pointed to the fact that the city is set to host the NFL Draft this week, a massive undertaking that has been made even more challenging in light of the pandemic. Given the fact that the event appears poised to go smoothly shows that not only is the proposed special events division duplicitous but it also demonstrates that significantly smaller events like block parties can and should resume.
"We're seeing a nationally televised event take place on our downtown lakefront but we're being told that there is an inability to even accept paperwork for a block party in September or October," Slife said. "The optics are bad. When residents have been asking a question for months and the answer is to propose a new office that wouldn't even be allowed to work right now because we're not issuing permits. I'm not sure I understand the strategy."
The proposal has added insult to injury for Shannon Okey, the founder of Cleveland Bazaar, a summertime tradition that brings dozens of small business owners and artisans to sell their wares in Ohio City and elsewhere throughout the city.
"We have tried to play by the rules. We have sat here and waited and waited and waited," Okey said. "The chance of salvaging a successful summer season is quickly coming to a close if we don't get some answers soon."
Okey said the city's permitting officials have effectively strung small business owners like her along by constantly pushing back deadlines and claiming, incorrectly, that certain events are not permitted under the state's health orders. She has started a Change.org petition that has garnered hundreds of signatures.
"It's frustrating for me personally because this is my business. This is my livelihood," Okey said. "But it is extra frustrating knowing that there are dozens and dozens of dozens of small businesses, primarily women-owned, primarily micro-businesses of one or two people, that are left without a venue."
Slife also pointed to the litany of events being planned for the coming months in neighboring communities as an even more perplexing aspect of the city's inaction.
"I listen to the scientists. What we have been doing as a city is creating our own set of rules. There is no reason that the swings in Cleveland parks have only been put up in the past two weeks when they were put up in suburban communities last fall," Slife said. "The NFL draft is demonstrating that [special events] can occur safely. The only double standard that is being created is by the City of Cleveland. To that end, it is time for the Office of Special Events to resume accepting applications for events and for the city of Cleveland to be clear about what health guidelines event organizers would need to follow in order to hold those events."
The Mayor's Office has not responded to News 5's requests for comment.