Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Family Affair

Family Affair
By Lee Chilcote

Michael Fleming first noticed the solid brick fa├žade and big, storefront windows of the former Oddfellows Hall on Lorain Avenue when he was training for a marathon. Wedged between a storefront church and a biker shop, the building seemed like a diamond in the rough.

“I was running one day, and the building jumped out at me,” says Fleming. “Lorain may be shabby and a bit down-at-the-heels, but it’s a very pretty street, and it’s affordable.”

Fleming saw that the property was for sale, and one day he ventured inside. The first thing he saw was the mahogany bar, covered in dust. That’s when he fell in love.

“I’ve always wanted to live above a bar,” says Fleming, who worked as a chef in Boston and Miami before moving back to Cleveland, his hometown, to pursue development in 2005.

Last year, Fleming bought the Ohio City building for $150,000 with his dad, his mom and his brother. The family members formed Solo Development LLC to invest in Cleveland real estate. They plan to renovate the first floor storefront and turn the upper two stories into loft apartments. Michael and his brother David will move into two of the apartments, and rent out the third.

“We are making an investment in the center of Cleveland,” says Ken Fleming, Michael’s father. “Since we purchased the building, we’ve seen other new developments sprout along Lorain.”

Ken Fleming cited over $16 million in investment on Lorain Avenue, including such projects as the St. Ignatius Performing Arts Facility, Providence House Campus expansion, the D.H. Ellison Company, the Cleveland Environmental Center, and the United Office Building.

The Flemings’ development was financed by Western Reserve Bank in Brecksville, in partnership with Cleveland Action to Support Housing (CASH), a non-profit whose mission is to provide low-interest loans to help spur reinvestment in Cleveland neighborhoods.

“We helped to finance the project at a reduced interest rate,” says Marcia Nolan, Executive Director of CASH. “We made deposits with Western Reserve Bank, and this enabled the borrower to save money.” She added, “Our work helps to make projects like this feasible.”

The developers will spend an additional $275,000 to create apartments in the building. The units will have a contemporary, loft-like feel, and will include such amenities as new kitchens and baths, in-suite laundry, and open floor plans. The third floor – which was originally used as a ballroom in its heyday, and has fourteen foot ceilings – is being transformed into a two bedroom, loft apartment. Michael plans to move into the apartment when it’s finished.

Renovating the building has turned into a family project. “My dad, my brother and I came down on Saturday mornings to tear apart the old plaster and lath from the walls and ceiling,” says Michael Fleming. “We spent about four months doing that before hiring a crew.”

During the redevelopment, the developers have coped with many challenges, including moving walls and reconfiguring electrical and plumbing systems. Michael is determined to restore the cove ceilings in the old ballroom, which were badly damaged by a leaky roof.

“Rehab is like peeling off layers of an onion,” Michael says with a laugh. “It’s a good learning experience.”

The Oddfellows building, which was built in 1870, has a rich, varied history. Over the years, it has housed the Hungarian Men’s Singing Society, the Communist Party of Northeast Ohio, and a hardcore music club called “Speak in Tongues,” among others.

Now that his rehab project is in full swing, Michael has fallen out of love with the building. Yet he still believes that the investment in Lorain Avenue will pay off over time. “One of the reasons I moved back to Cleveland is because it is an affordable place for a young person to invest, and it has great, historic buildings,” he says. “There’s so much opportunity here.”

Michael is already planning future dinner parties in his new home, and he has even talked about starting his own restaurant on the first floor. At the moment, however, refinishing the mahogany bar will have to wait. He’s got a lot of work to do before moving day.

[Note: This profile was written for Cleveland Action to Support Housing (CASH). It was published in Cool Cleveland.)

Two Organizations I Admire

Recently, I've been inspired by the work of two exemplary organizations, the Galilean Theological Seminary and Passages Inc. The GTC provides training and mentoring for Hispanic pastors that serve the Latino community on Cleveland's west side (they are the only organization of their kind in the state of Ohio). Passages provides job readiness, mentoring and fatherhood programs for African-American men in Cuyahoga County. Thanks to referrals from my friend Nicole McGee, a fellow grant writer, I wrote small grants for each organization.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Last week, the American editor of Granta, an international literary magazine with a circulation of about 55,000, spoke at the Lit. He described Granta as a kind of antidote to the "get it now" culture of today's media. Much like a magazine, most of the pieces in Granta can be read in a single sitting (or two, if they are of the 50-page variety), but they cross a number of genres that you rarely find in magazines these days, including poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, photography and visual art. The issues sometimes have a theme (such as "fathers" in a recent issue) to which different authors respond. You can check it out online at

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

who put that burger on your plate?

The Elysium Charter School in Hoboken, NJ recently won the national "Farm to School" Youtube competition. A friend of mine, Aram Rubenstein-Gillis, is an arts consultant at the school (and who, after all, wouldn't want to be one of those?). He teaches music education, and he worked with a class of 5th graders to write, record and film the song and video, "Who Put That Burger on Your Plate?" The song is unbelievably cute, tells the inside story behind the travels of the aforementioned burger, and is kind of like Woody Guthrie meets today's green movement ... You can check it out here:

creating model blocks in cleveland neighborhoods

Neighborhood Progress Inc., a nonprofit that serves as an intermediary to community development corporations in Cleveland, is working on a "Model Blocks Resource Guide." The purpose of the guide is to help Cleveland residents to create a model block. What I find exciting about this project is that the "model block approach" combines grassroots action with coordinated and targeted resources. Done well, it seems to take community organizing to a higher level, layering various approaches to community redevelopment on top of one another, and applying these tactics simultaneously to maximize the impact. One example would be forming a block club, then applying for grants to fix up houses on your street while also using volunteer labor. NPI hired me to assist with the writing and organization of the brochure. Read more about NPI and model blocks by clicking here.


If you plan to check out some films at the Cleveland International Film Festival, I highly recommend "Pachamama", "El Camino" and "German Plus Rain". I had an opportunity to view these films before the festival, as I was hired as one of the synopsis writers for the program guide, and enjoyed both of these films. I know, I know - so many movies, so little time!

the namesake

I had a chance to read The Namesake, a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri, while I was vacationing for a few days in California. What a great book! The novel explores issues of ethnic identity in our so-called post-racial world. It also has some very tender and funny scenes, and the lead character, Gogol, unexpectedly turns out to be a bit of a lady's man. The novel centers around an Indian family that emigrates to the U.S. Told largely through the eyes of the second-generation Gogol, it asks the question, "can you ever go home again"?, yet does so in such a charming way, with seemingly fresh insight into the immigrant experience in today's world, that it works.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

schools study ways to promote digital alumni connections

By Lee Chilcote
Published in Crain's Cleveland Business, 1/26/09

Imagine a group of Oberlin College alumni, gathered in front of a high-definition television in New York City or San Francisco to watch a concert being performed live on campus.

That’s the vision of Ben Jones, Oberlin’s vice president for communications. “We need to create a communications system that engages alumni in lifelong participation,” says Mr. Jones, who sees technology as a tool to link alumni with campus activities.

Alumni communications in Northeast Ohio are rapidly changing as colleges and universities use the next generation of technology — including blogs and social media tools — to reach out to alumni. But many alumni groups are struggling to effectively use technology and stay on top of technological trends.

“Technology has shrunk the world, and it makes it easier to communicate,” says Dan Clancy, executive director of alumni relations for Case Western Reserve University. “But we don’t want to send out e-mails that people don’t read, so we try to be strategic.”

Citing a digital divide, most schools still send alumni magazines by mail. Many of these institutions also offer additional content online and send e-mail newsletters to appeal to Internet-savvy alums.

“We have many alumni who grew up with technology, and others who didn’t,” Mr. Jones said. “In five to 10 years, this gap may not be there. In the meantime, we don’t want to leave anyone behind, but we also don’t want to limit ourselves.”

The divide, Mr. Jones adds, is not necessarily between older and younger alumni. “We have older alumni who are computer scientists that helped to create the Internet, and younger alumni who don’t use the Internet every day,” he says. “There is a spectrum in each generation.”

The primary difference, says Carolyn Champion-Sloan, executive director of alumni affairs for Cleveland State University, is in how alumni use the Internet: “Those over 35 use e-mail to communicate, but aren’t necessarily on it all of the time.”

Lines of communication

Technology has afforded alumni groups the chance to communicate quickly and to target communications to specific alumni groups, CWRU’s Mr. Clancy said. He cited a recent visit to Tokyo by CWRU president Barbara Snyder. After the alumni association sent out an e-mail invitation to the Tokyo alumni chapter, 50 alumni attended the reception.

“The next morning, when I arrived into the office, pictures from the event were waiting in my e-mail in-box,” Mr. Clancy said.

In order to cultivate personal relationships with alumni, schools also are trying to personalize their communications by creating alumni-only sites that allow graduates to specify their interests and network with other alumni where they live.

“Our graduates could be anywhere, chatting with one another in real time,” says Mr. Clancy of the AlumNet system recently launched by CWRU.

Oberlin also is working on an opt-in communications system that will, among other things, allow graduates to receive their alumni magazine by e-mail only. “We need to move beyond a one-size-fits-all strategy,” Mr. Jones said.

Another trend is the explosion in popularity of social media sites such as Facebook. This popularity has led alumni groups to use these sites for networking.

“We know that our graduates are already using these sites, and this is one way we can reach them,” says Lori Randorf, director of alumni relations for Kent State University. Ms. Randorf has created Kent State alumni groups on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Other schools, such as Oberlin, are using interactive blogs to communicate with the extended campus community. Mr. Jones recently launched a blog ( and hired student bloggers to write entries.

Many schools also view technology as a tool for raising money. “Through the Internet, schools can cultivate relationships without relying on face-to-face contact and phone calls,” said Ann Womer Benjamin, executive director of the Northeast Ohio Council on Higher Education. “It’s also easier to maintain contact lists.”

Not everyone agrees, however. “Fundraising electronically just isn’t warm and fuzzy,” says Vondea Sheaffer, coordinator for development and alumni relations at the Northeastern Ohio Universities Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy, who says that personal outreach is essential. “You still need to create a connection.”

Not without its downfalls

While technology offers many advantages, it can be time-consuming and expensive.
“People think technology is cheap, but it isn’t always,” said Mr. Jones. The toughest part of his job, he adds, is choosing what to prioritize. “It changes quickly. There’s always a danger that by the time we implement ideas, they’ll be outdated.”

While technology is certain to advance in the coming years, it also is likely that some things will remain the same.

“Just because Amazon introduced the Kindle doesn’t mean that books are obsolete,” Mr. Jones says. “The alumni magazine will always have a print version, because some people want that.”

Friday, January 30, 2009

the most points on a single turn in the game of scrabble

Was for the word "quixotry". 365 by a carpenter named Michael Cresta in Lexington, Mass.

Sheila Schwartz has a new book coming out entitled "Lies Will Take You Somewhere". It's kind of like a twisted travelogue about self-deception, love and family. There will be a celebration of the publication of this novel by Etruscan Press on Feb. 28th at the Lit. Sheila, who taught at Cleveland State, unfortunately passed away in November 2008 after a lengthy battle with cancer - an incredibly sad loss to the Cleveland literary community. I am currently reading the book, and writing a review that I hope will find a home soon.

I have been writing film synopses for the program guide of the Cleveland International Film Festival. This fulfills my lifelong goal of getting paid to sit on my couch and watch movies. Seriously: go see "German Plus Rain," "Pachamama" and "El Camino." So many films, so little time. What better way to escape the snowmelt/snowfall season that we call March here in the Cleve.

This week, I had a piece published in Crain's Cleveland Business, in a special section about alumni at colleges and universities. The piece that I wrote is about the challenges and opportunities that schools face in using technology to reach out to and engage alumni.

And finally, here's my recession story: as I said last year, "bad year for real estate, good year for writing". The state of the economy has pushed and prodded me to focus on my writing, and lately I've been freelancing and writing non-fiction and poetry like nobody's business (what does that phrase mean, anyway?). As always, if you've got a referral, please send it my way.

Thanks for reading.