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The Gateway Group’s Thomas V. Chema

Cleveland still has work to do when it comes to tackling big, bold ideas

September 28, 2018

By: Mark Scott

Thomas V. Chema played a lead role in overseeing the public/private partnership that brought downtown Cleveland a new ballpark and arena for the Indians and Cavaliers, respectively, in 1994. It was a journey that included numerous challenges, most of which revolved around money.

More than 20 years later, Chema, who has consulted on numerous sports and entertainment-related construction projects across the country, says Cleveland still has a hesitance about pursuing big, game-changing development projects.

“We shouldn’t be afraid to do projects just because they have a ‘b’ behind it instead of an ‘m,’” says Chema, chairman and founder of The Gateway Group. “Those projects are important, they are legacies and they move economic development forward. So I would encourage people to take the risk.”

Chema has published numerous articles and frequently lectures on public/private partnerships, infrastructure planning and other related topics. In 2014, he retired after serving 11 years as president of Hiram College.

In this week’s Dealmakers Live, Chema shares his key takeaways to getting the Gateway project done and talks about the value of taking risks. What follows is a transcript of the above video, edited for readability.

 

 

Find another way

Often, there are multiple ways to solve a problem. And it may not be the initial way you thought about. I remember once in the middle of the Gateway project when some of the costing came in and we were $92 million out of whack in terms of the budget. And when the budget at that time was supposed to be around $300 million, that was a lot of money.

The initial thought that some folks had was, ‘OK, how do we pare this back to stay within that $300 million to $330 million goal?’ That wasn’t going to work. It was not going to get us a ballpark and an arena. We had to change gears and find another $92 million, which we did. So you have to be flexible in how you approach these things and I think you do it with a spirit of cooperation with the other side.

In the case of Gateway, there were lots of other sides. On the Indians’ piece of it, we were dealing with Dick Jacobs and his team. With the Cavs, it was Gordon Gund and his team. Then of course, our client was the public and the various public sector players and there were a lot of them. It was always about not giving up, sticking to the effort, but being flexible and trying to see that there might be another way to solve the problem than what we originally had forecast.

Take the risk

I think it is really important for people to think big, to have bold vision, to dream. It’s extremely important that people who have the wherewithal, who have accomplished things in their life and who have the means to help drive a community forward, that they think big. They should not be intimidated by the difficulties of putting together public/private partnerships. They are difficult and for so many businessmen, getting into that regimen is hard because it is foreign. So many people have been successful by playing their cards very close to the vest, by taking their own counsel, not being open and transparent as we were talking about before as this digital age kind of makes you do.

It’s a risk that a lot of people in the business community don’t want to take to become developers. But I think it is amazingly satisfying. I can go around this country and show my children and grandchildren 40-some buildings that I have had a hand in building and there are a lot of people who get great enjoyment from going into those ballparks, arenas, stadiums, convention centers. It’s very satisfying to be able to say you’ve had a mark on a community and you moved that community forward. I would certainly encourage people to be willing to take both that reputational risk and getting out of their comfort zone risk to engage in those types of big projects.

We in Greater Cleveland still are reticent to do really big things. The Gateway project, for example. We spent, at the end of the day, $461 million, which was a lot of money. But that’s not a lot of money today. We shouldn’t be afraid to do projects just because they have a ‘b’ behind it instead of an ‘m.’ Those projects are important, they are legacies and they move economic development forward. So I would encourage people to take the risk.

Stop talking to yourself

Too often, I think we tend as we’re looking at a transaction or a deal to talk to ourselves. We don’t get outside input into whatever the transaction is. If it’s a real estate deal in which you are going to convert a building from office to housing, take a look at the whole gamut of housing out there. Not just what the guy next door did. Get some input from a variety of different places and different types and see how you can apply that learning to your particular project. I don’t think we do that as much as we ought to. We tend to be insular and clamp down and base everything on what we did yesterday. In a way, it’s kind of like fighting yesterday’s war. It doesn’t usually work quite so well as it could.