Reflections on year one: Ronayne looks back on his first year as County Executive

At the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2023, Chris Ronayne was sworn into office as Cuyahoga County Executive, with a ceremonial inauguration held later that month.

He campaigned on the promise to get Cuyahoga County back on track, with a fresh start in creating opportunities and jobs for everyone, enhancing and continuing improvements on the Lake Erie shores and Cuyahoga Riverbanks, improving county services, and creating a more equitable, just county.

“I think that this last year, in 2023, the hallmark of our start [as County Executive] has been that we were an administration on the move,” Ronayne says.

A little over a year after taking office in his four-year term, Ronayne sat down with FreshWater Cleveland to reflect on his accomplishments, share what he is most excited about, and look into what the future holds for 2024.

Clean Water Institute

Reflecting on this first year as Cuyahoga County Executive, Ronayne says he is reminded of his first State of the County address back in June. He intentionally scheduled his address to coincide with the 54th anniversary of the Cuyahoga River fire that sparked then-Cleveland Mayor Carl Stokes to champion for the creation, and ultimate passage of the Clean Water Act.

Chris Ronayne at his first State of the County addressChris Ronayne at his first State of the County addressWhen Ronayne gave his address on June 30, he took Stokes’ work to the next level with his plans to create a Fresh Water Institute. The institute will partner with county officials with businesses, nonprofits, and other organizations to develop, preserve, and celebrate the area’s fresh water.

“I opened the year hoping to focus attention on our position as a freshwater county,” Ronayne recalls. “At the doorway to the Great Lakes, which represents 20% of the world's freshwater supply and 90% of the national water supply, we have a treasure. I called for the idea of building a Fresh Water Institute.”

He says the due diligence plans are underway to create the institute—assessing the educational, advocacy, research, and economic development benefits of having such a resource.

“I'm coming at the waterfronts, river, and lake in a slightly different manner than the City of Cleveland, which is rightly focused on waterfront development,” Ronayne explains. “I'm coming at it from, what is in the water, what are our stewardship responsibilities to it, and what is our opportunity because of it.”

Ronayne found additional inspiration for his Fresh Water Institute while traveling across the Cuyahoga River to Jacobs Pavilion in the Nautica Waterfront District on the Port of Cleveland’s Flotsam and Jetsam.

While on one of the boats that clears 200,000 pounds of debris yearly from the Cuyahoga River, he met two of the crew members—students from Davis Aerospace & Maritime High School’s Argonaut Crew.

Chris Ronayne at his first State of the County addressChris Ronayne at his first State of the County address“As I was riding the boats, the students were telling me about what they were doing that summer—they were cleaning up the Cuyahoga River every day, manning Flotsam and Jetsam,” Ronayne recalls. “Those students gave me great interest and gave me a great kind of hope that we can build a maritime economy from a variety of businesses that need fresh water or water as a resource.”

Additionally, Ronayne says the Fresh Water Institute will also be a resource to attract younger generations to issues preserving the river for industry and recreation.

“What I'm focused on are kids who may be living a mile from the Cuyahoga River or Lake Erie, but really aren't actively engaged with it,” he explains. “How do we build that engagement through this Fresh Water Institute? How do we teach about the history, the ecology, and the recreational opportunities that we can provide more for the kids, and then provide work opportunities like the kids from Davis A&M High School.”

Honoring a local hero

One of the highlights of the State of the County address that day back in June, and perhaps one of the year’s highlights, Ronayne says, was giving Cleveland architect Robert P. Madison—Shaker Heights resident and the oldest living Black architect in the United States—the first Key to the County.

“Robert P. Madison, I think, is a legend in our midst,” says Ronayne. “People our age may know the story of Bob Madison, but I want kids to know about somebody who fought in the Second World War in the Buffalo Soldiers unit, came back decorated with a Purple Heart, but still had struggles—not because of his academic ability, but because of racism.”

Madison had trouble getting into Case Western Reserve University School of Architecture because he was Black.

“He ultimately persevered, got in, and entered a blind design competition that enabled him to get enough money to start his own firm, which is the first Black-owned architecture firm in the state of Ohio,” Ronayne says. “He's a real hero. That was a very special day, meeting the kids at Davis A&M, and then after my speech, presenting to Bob Madison the first key to the county.”

Dark days lead to promise

While Ronayne had plenty of positive moments to share from his first year as County Executive, he admits that he met with challenges within the first two weeks in office—particularly with caring for the county’s children in need.

“About this time last year, on two Fridays, back-to-back, we were called by our Department of Children Family Services, who reported that a young lady had been dropped off by an ambulance to the Jane Edna Hunter building,” Ronayne recalls. “She's 14 years old, she had nowhere to go, and Medicaid had run out. So she ended up at our government building.”

Then, another incident occurred a week later. “A six-year-old kid was dropped off from a yellow school bus at Jane Edna Hunter,” Ronayne says. “This was a 14-year-old girl and a six-year-old student. The driver had nowhere to take him.”

The incidents prompted Ronayne to partner with The Centers to push forward his Child Wellness Center campus at The Centers’ Cleveland Christian Home. “First of all, those kids are in trauma, but it's traumatic for us to even have that kind of experience with them, and we needed to do more,” he says.

The campus will provide a safe place for treatment options for youth who need intense care for medical, mental health, behavioral health, and trauma-related issues and provide a better path for children who need assistance.

I tried to move the narrative from child welfare to child wellness,” says Ronayne. “We want to be focused on the wellness of every child in our community.”

He adds that the County is currently trying to close an $8 million gap to make capital improvements and renovations. “I would say it's predicated on the funding, but my hope is this time next year, we're talking about doors being open for the kids,” he says. “In the future, for those instances, we will have a dignified place for a child to feel a home experience and be safe, dry, and with skilled specialists to help them.”

Chris at the Veterans Memorial Bridge Tour 2023Chris at the Veterans Memorial Bridge Tour 2023On the water

Like many Clevelanders, Ronayne is excited about the main lakefront projects underway or planned to make better recreational use of Cleveland’s coastline. He says the county recently closed its call for artists to submit proposals for the lower level of Veterans Memorial Bridge.

“I hope to see the Veterans Memorial Bridge open up again,” he says. “We had 9,000 people experience the bridge last June. The 55th anniversary of the burning of the river is this year. so sometime in June, we're going to reopen that bridge again.

“We also want to see Irishtown Bend come to fruition,” Ronayne continues. “The Cleveland Metroparks, they're doing a great job with the CHEERS project on East 9th, East 55th Street Marina, and beyond to Gordon Park. We put some money in the trails to help us get there. So there is a lot of waterfront planning I'm excited about.”

Neighborhood improvement

Ronayne says he had plans to improve many of Cuyahoga County’s underserved neighborhoods. He uses simple criteria to identify where he needs to work on revitalization plans.

Cuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne announced the Child Wellness Campus last DecemberCuyahoga County Executive Chris Ronayne announced the Child Wellness Campus last December“I think the canary in the mine is outcomes, life expectancy, and the social determinants of health,” he says. “If you go right to that issue—where there's the shortest life expectancy—that's where the greatest work is needed. You can take that same concept globally, but there are places where the people within a country or a county are rich in resources but are still starved for job opportunities and education outlets. And that's where we have to do our work.”

Ronayne says that during the 16 years serving as president of University Circle, Inc., he was a big proponent of the “15-minute neighborhood”— “where you can get everything in your daily life without having to get in your car to get it”—a concept he says Cleveland Mayor Justin Bibb also supports.

“I see it in Lakewood, I see it in Euclid, I see it in Parma, and I see it in places that were built for walkable suburban communities,” he says. “And I see it in Cleveland, in neighborhoods like University Circle, Ohio City, and Old Brooklyn.”

But he says he would like to see the concept spread to more of Cleveland’s urban and underserved neighborhoods. “These neighborhoods should be places where you can age in place, where you don't have to depend on a car to get everything you need, where you have access within five minutes of your home to a park, to transit, to fresh food, and to healthcare outlets in 15 minutes.

“I think that's a good construct to work from,” Ronayne continues. “Our planning commission is working on transit-oriented development, walkable communities. That’s something I aspire to as a former planning director of Cleveland. Now I have a chance to help the mayors do something about it.”

Quality of life

Ronayne is particularly proud of the efforts he and his team have made in addressing issues like finding a new location for the justice center, narrowing the skills gap with workforce training programs, expanding transportation access, and ensuring affordable housing.

Chris spending time with kids at Caledonia Elementary School for the The Cuyahoga Reads initiativeChris spending time with kids at Caledonia Elementary School for the The Cuyahoga Reads initiativeHe’s also created the county’s first Housing and Community Development department that will focus on safe, affordable, and quality homes. The program will include a funding element and provide other resources to ensure residents have affordable options.

Ronayne’s investment in Cuyahoga County residents, neighborhoods, and organizations is a priority. In the past year, he’s given attention to small businesses, the immigrant and refugee communities, and nonprofit organizations. It’s all a part of the day’s work, he says.

“My big surprise is how much I like the job,” he says. “I spent time reading to an audience of first graders at Charles Mooney School in Old Brooklyn. We've got great opportunity to really move the needle on early childhood support and investment—supporting literacy organizations and vocabulary development.”

Ronayne says he tries to visit at least one nonprofit organization each week, to see in person what area organizations are doing to help others in the community. This year, he’s worked with Refugee Response on getting a new kitchen at the Ohio City Farm Stand, and Achievement Centers for Children’s Camp Cheerful, just to name a couple.

“The most humbling part of my job had been working with the frontline, nonprofit partners—but it's also the most exciting part of my job,” he says. “I expected that we would work together to leverage the assets of this community. I wake up just thrilled to work in this job, move the needle on quality of life, work with our nonprofits on giving people pathways to better outcomes. It's an exciting time to be here. I think there's a lot of enthusiasm for this place.”

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.