LeBron, Gilbert spark Cleveland renaissance

ESPNAPI_IMG_NO_ALTEXT_ValueAP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

Walk through East Fourth Street on a Saturday night and you could very well be in any popular city in America. It features some of the country's best food, hip bars and trendy stores.

For those who haven't been in downtown Cleveland in a while, the question will invariably come up: How did this happen?

It's a complicated answer, as is every related to how urban renewal manages to succeed. But in Cleveland, the answer includes LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert and ... the chefs.

Without LeBron, Cleveland -- which like many blue-collar cities gets its pulse from its sports teams -- might still be the Cleveland of old: the one known for its river being so polluted it caught on fire, for Earnest Byner's fumble and for Michael Jordan over Craig Ehlo.

Without the spectacle of LeBron, downtown Cleveland doesn't ever draw the crowds.

Without the crowds, Gilbert doesn't gain the power -- he likely doesn't get a casino and perhaps never has the faith to move his company, Quicken Loans, to the city.

But without the chefs, the speed of coolness that came to downtown Cleveland soon after LeBron left following the 2009-10 season would not have happened.

LeBron's story you're more familiar with: High school phenom gets drafted by hometown team and turns it into a contender.

In the process, the masses come to downtown and there's even a new type of visitor Cleveland never had -- a celebrity who flies into town just to see LeBron play.

Economists have long argued that when sports teams get an economic boost, it comes at the expense of the community because every dollar is given to the team. But economists haven't encountered sports owners like Gilbert, who not only is working on flipping the perception of Cleveland but has the country's biggest renewal project on his hands in Detroit.

LeBron's first seven years in the league built the foundation of the idea that downtown Cleveland could change. That's when public money was first committed to revitalization.

But in 2010, LeBron famously left. And the plans for what was to be built were in no-man's land. The Cavs returned to futility and the crowds dwindled.

And then came the chefs.

Michael Symon and Jonathon Sawyer are two native Ohioans who never forgot where they came from.

A year before LeBron left, Symon won "The Next Iron Chef." As Symon's career exploded and he became a celebrity chef, he branched out to other cities but always made Ohio his home.

On Fourth Street, he had high-end Lola and Lolita, and this year he debuted a BBQ place named Mabel's.

Sawyer, who worked for Symon, also made his splash in Cleveland. Among his four restaurants is The Greenhouse Tavern.

While LeBron was gone, the chefs did their work. They continued the good name of the city -- winning national awards and impressing out-of-towners with their fare -- and when LeBron came back, they were ready to capitalize even further.

The chefs, huge sports fans who also have a presence at Cavs and Browns games, and LeBron work in tandem. On game nights, Sawyer and Symon's restaurants are packed. Sawyer says 80 percent of his customers -- judging from area codes left for reservations -- since May have been from outside greater Cleveland.

"That's insane," Sawyer said. "You don't get that without LeBron."

There are the usual stats put forth by Cleveland authorities, which are just projections: that the Cavaliers' playoff run last season was worth $35 million in new spending. But those numbers are compromised by past economic studies put forth by cities that don't come close to Cleveland's reality.

Numbers more specific to Cleveland speak to its real rise. In 2000, three years before LeBron was drafted, a person could get a one-bedroom apartment in downtown Cleveland for $550. That same place might cost triple today as millennials living downtown have grown 77 percent in the last 16 years.

Prior to this year, the Cleveland Indians and Cavaliers played in 156 combined seasons that ended in a title. Only two of those were won by those teams (the Indians in 1920 and 1948).

With the Cavs winning the title last season and the Indians on the cusp of one, it could mean two titles in five months for the city.

A city that has seen a remarkable psychological transformation through sport, but also a remarkable financial impact that reaches outside the coffers of the local owners.