High Stakes On the Lake
Bloomberg Businessweek|October 18 - 25, 2021
Justin Bibb wants to be Cleveland’s next mayor. If he beats Kevin Kelley, he’ll inherit serious problems—and a windfall to fix them
Amanda Kolson Hurley

When Monique Jones moved from Atlanta to Cleveland last year to care for a sick family member, she was shocked by the poor condition of the roads and that she couldn’t get high-speed internet at home. “It’s like they’re back in the past here,” says Jones, 47. “Atlanta is just so far ahead. This city has a lot to deal with.”

By U.S. Census Bureau figures, Cleveland is the poorest big city in the U.S., with 30% of residents and 46% of children living below the poverty line. Its digital divide is one of the country’s worst, with 31% of residents lacking reliable high-speed internet. The city has lost 6% of its residents since 2010, and its current population of 372,624 is the lowest since the 1800s. The post-recession recovery that’s lifted other Rust Belt and midsize cities seems to have bypassed Cleveland altogether.

That’s the troubled backdrop for the race to elect Cleveland’s first new mayor in 16 years. The Nov. 2 election pits longtime City Council President Kevin Kelley, 53, against a political newcomer, 34-year-old Justin Bibb, a business and nonprofit executive who’s positioned himself as a millennial outsider. (Although the election is officially nonpartisan, both Kelley and Bibb are Democrats.)

Whichever candidate replaces four-term Mayor Frank Jackson faces economic turmoil and deeply entrenched inequality as the city moves out of the pandemic. But he also has a unique resource. The federal American Rescue Plan sent $511 million to Cleveland—money that could jump-start a new chapter in the city’s history. Richey Piiparinen, director of the Center for Population Dynamics at Cleveland State University, says the next mayor has a “great opportunity” to use that money to train workers and correct the city’s health disparities.

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