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How the NFL draft could ‘slingshot’ Cleveland businesses out of pandemic struggles

·Producer
·3 min read

On Thursday, Cleveland will host the NFL Draft for the first time, joining the 2019 MLB All-Star game and a 2020 presidential debate as major events recently brought to the North Coast. Events like these stimulate the city’s businesses, according to David Gilbert, the president and CEO of Destination Cleveland and the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission.

These events also further build awareness of why Cleveland should be a stop on the next family road trip — despite the city’s previous reputation as the “mistake on the lake,” a reference to Cleveland’s failed steel industry and empty warehouses.

“You have this perception issue from a couple decades ago and when events like this bring in tens of thousands of new and fresh eyes, it really helps because we track that,” Gilbert told Yahoo Finance Live on Monday. “We see people move here because of that.”

Kelly Legan and her husband Lucas Reeve are living proof of Gilbert’s theory. A Cleveland born restaurateur, Legan never thought she’d convince her Canadian born husband to move to Cleveland. Then the pair attended a Cleveland Indians game during the 2016 World Series at Progressive Field. The city’s growing restaurant culture and vibrant sports scene swayed Reeve’s opinion on Cleveland.

“(Reeve) saw the change in the city and just the growth that happened and how much it rallies around its sports teams,” Legan said. “It grew as a destination more than just ‘oh you're going to come in and go to the ‘burbs.’”

May 23, 2019; Cleveland, OH, USA; David Gilbert, President and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission speaks during a press conference in Public Square to announce Cleveland as the host of the 2021 NFL draft. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports
May 23, 2019; Cleveland, OH, USA; David Gilbert, President and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission speaks during a press conference in Public Square to announce Cleveland as the host of the 2021 NFL draft. Mandatory Credit: Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Now Legan works at a Masthead Brewing downtown Cleveland, which she said sees a significant number of out-of-town patrons in the restaurant and receives requests to ship its beer out of state. Research from Destination Cleveland shows that Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County paced above the national average in visitation growth rate each year from 2011-2019.

With visitation up 31.5% in the same time frame, Destination Cleveland estimated that tourism’s economic impact on the city has grown 45% since 2011. That economic impact trickles down to an estimated $1,150 in tax savings per household and $2.8 billion in employment income across roughly 70,000 tourism jobs in Cuyahoga County.

Hosting the draft amid the COVID-19 pandemic has tempered expectations on the expected economic impact. The $100 million of outside spending Gilbert dreamed of likely won’t come. But the draft could help guide the city forward in a different way.

With somewhere around 20,000 football fans roaming the city per day, hotel general manager Tim Meyer said his Westin Cleveland Downtown is the busiest it's been since early 2020. As of Monday his hotel was around 85% full for draft weekend, all at pre-pandemic hotel rates.

This isn’t just good for hotel chains alone either, Meyer explained — it’s also good for the entire community. Hotels are expanding their staffs again. With a larger staff comes more uniform cleaning for the local dry cleaners and more mouths to feed for locally owned Cleveland restaurants.

“This could really slingshot us out of COVID for those businesses, particularly downtown, the hotels restaurants and others that are just starved for business and this is going to get people back to really re-engaging with their community,” Gilbert said.

Josh Schafer is a producer at Yahoo Finance.

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