Cleveland’s TIF Tangle

Arthur Hargate
5 min readJan 15, 2024
Photo by J.E. Hargate

Well, it should be an “interesting” discussion at Cleveland City Council about the Mayor’s proposal for a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District in downtown Cleveland that will entice developers to invest heavily in what the administration has poetically dubbed the “Shore to Core to Shore” downtown area of our fair city. (At least the slick, nauseating sloganeering has thankfully nothing to do with plums or any other fruit.)

The public will want to be deeply involved in the discussion and planning, especially to the extent that public money is being used or redirected in any appreciable quantity, and we all know that that quantity will be massive. Unfortunately, our history in Cleveland with property development concepts and projects like this is one that is long on glitzy marketing and short on actual transparency to the public, and too often questions the public has of financial substance don’t get answered until well after major decisions have been made without real public input, if they are ever answered at all.

So far the City has not surprisingly led the charge yet again with the very typical pretty artist’s renderings, bloviating civic boosterism and meaningless “trickle-down” economic development bromides that have for decades polluted public discourse on how our tax money is used and often misused in capital projects.

The City steadfastly avoids the critical financial and public benefits questions that Cleveland’s residents and taxpayers will undoubtedly have. “Don’t worry, be happy, it will all work out,” seems to be the subliminal message. “Other cities have done this, so now it’s our turn, and we better do it before it’s too late!” Urgency! There’s always urgency to spend or redirect vast sums of public money.

But residents and taxpayers, burned repeatedly by decades of such flimflam economic development hucksterism, have every right to be skeptical, even cynical, and should demand substantive answers to pointed questions that will reveal the underlying economic equity that this proposal will deliver, if it will deliver any real equity at all. Vague feel-good promises mean nothing. The public needs facts, and commitments.

Critically, every taxpayer must be able to “follow the money” and understand in depth how private interests will benefit from public subsidies and the magnitude. Too often the history of public-private partnerships in this city is one where private entities just engorge themselves at an overflowing public money trough.

So the public correctly will have searching questions about who benefits, and who pays. And the public will want commitments for the public good from those entities that will surely profit handsomely from the public’s largesse.

The public will rightly have questions such as these:

1) How will this special district and its development directly affect endemic poverty in the City of Cleveland? It’s important to have specifics, not gauzy, condescending generalities.

2) How many living-wage, family-supporting jobs with benefits will be provided? Will those high quality jobs be preferentially provided to residents of Cleveland? Will they be committed to?

3) What happens if commitments for high quality jobs are not met? Part-time, seasonal, independent contractor and provisional / contingent employment is irrelevant. Full-time, living-wage, family-supporting jobs with benefits have evaporated in the City of Cleveland and must be significantly provided for this district and its associated projects to be successful to taxpayers.

4) How will this district and its development increase the supply of affordable housing in the City, especially housing to purchase?

5) How will this district and its development bring an end to homelessness in Cleveland?

6) How will this district and its development make our streets safer?

7) How will this district and its development help underfunded urban public schools?

8) How will this district and its development improve the existing anemic public transit system to make living-wage, family-supporting jobs with benefits easily accessible to residents of all of Cleveland’s neighborhoods?

9) What is the return to taxpayers on their investment? We need specifics, not ephemeral marketing generalities.

10) What type of enforceable community benefits agreements will be struck that will deliver a quantifiable return to taxpayers on their invested capital?

11) How will diligent oversight of tax dollars be handled? What routine reporting will be done on project progress, and how can taxpayers be assured of independent, objective and unbiased analysis?

12) How will the City fully divulge the financial models used for project projections? When public money is being used or redirected, the public should have clear visibility on the entire scope of project financial models.

13) How much public money will be devoted to attorney’s fees?

14) How much public money will be devoted to outside consulting fees?

15) The public needs to see the cash flow modeling, including inputs and outputs so it can understand how much public money will ultimately be flowing out of the community to remote investors and suppliers. This is money not recirculating inside the community, and the public needs to understand exactly how much of its money will land in the pockets of those that won’t spend it here.

16) What are the project profitability projections and who participates in those profits?

17) What will the debt structure and debt burden look like to the City over the life of the financed project horizon?

18) Who are the outside investors? Where are they domiciled? The public needs specifics, not sanitized and generic information on phantom LLC’s, hedge funds or secretive private equity investors. Ownership is important. The public must know who owns their city.

19) How will the City assure that outside invested capital is not money being laundered from illegitimate sources? Cleveland has a checkered history with real estate development by foreign oligarchs and other similarly dubious investment sources.

20) How will the public understand that this district and its development represents true community development and resident wealth-building and not just more rapacious economic extraction by remote investors?

21) How will construction work be guaranteed to minority contractors and contractors domiciled in the City of Cleveland?

Sadly, Cleveland stubbornly remains one of the poorest large cities in the United States, despite decades of economic development schemes and projects with lavish public subsidies to the business community, billionaire-owned sports franchises and remote investors who have done little or nothing to promote community wealth-building.

As well, the history of projects and promises like this one is one of complete financial opacity. Maybe this will be the project where taxpayers and residents finally understand clearly who is actually benefiting from the project and who is actually paying, for a change.

And if the benefits and payments prove to be equitable and fair, that will be something quite new in the City of Cleveland, and most certainly welcomed heartily by its so routinely disenfranchised residents.



Arthur Hargate

Arthur Hargate is retired after a 40-year management career in the environmental services business. He now writes, plays guitar and is a social activist.