A conversation with organizers on the long fight over the development project, and how it ended

By Lee Chilcote, The Land

Cuyahoga County held a grand opening for its new Diversion Center on a bright, chilly morning in early May. One by one, elected officials, judges and politicians stepped up to the podium to sing its praises. Outside the tent where the politicos were seated, leaders from Greater Cleveland Congregations, a faith-based group wearing bright yellow shirts, stood in the back and cheered.

“This will require a major culture change in Cuyahoga County,” County Executive Armond Budish said as he stepped up to the microphone. “Instead of thinking of people who have mental illness and addiction as criminals, we’re thinking of them now going forward as people who need help.”

The diversion center, which is located at Oriana House at 1804 E. 55th St. in the Hough neighborhood, “provides an alternative to incarceration for people living with mental illness and/or addiction who have an interaction with law enforcement regarding a low-level offense,” according to the ADAMHS (Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services) board of Cuyahoga County website.“This option provides treatment instead of jail, and is a tool for law enforcement officers.”

You wouldn’t necessarily know it from the day’s proceedings, which carried an air of forced geniality that masked the bitterness of the fight between GCC and local leaders, but creating the diversion center had partially been GCC’s idea. Not only this, but they’d risked their reputation fighting for it. “He acted like this was his brainchild,” Forest Hill Church co-pastor John Lentz told The Land of Budish’s speech afterwards. “None of this happens without GCC. It just doesn’t.”

While it’s true that Cuyahoga County had been working for years on a post-booking facility to be located at the old juvenile justice center, “it would have been only for mental illness, not addiction,” said Donna Weinberger, former criminal justice project coordinator with GCC. “People would have ended up with a record to get treatment. We didn’t agree with the concept, scope or location. Also, it got completely stalled out and nothing was done about it for years. We had to completely reshape their idea and make it happen.”

According to the ADAMHS board, jails are not the best place for people who are struggling with mental health and substance use disorders. “For someone struggling with a substance use disorder or mental illness, jail increases isolation and can cause an increased risk for more severe illness and even suicidal ideation,” the website states. “A study by County-hired consultants reviewed inmates booked into the jail between May and November 2019 and found one-third had serious mental illness or substance use issues. These identified inmates also stayed in the jail an average of seventy-seven percent longer than other inmates.”

The origins of the diversion center date back to 2017. That’s when GCC opposed the deal to renovate the Q (now Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse) with $70 million of public money, which was pitched as a fifty-fifty split between taxpayers and the Cavs (the team ended up spending more, taking on sixty-two percent of the final cost). The deal would benefit wealthy downtown sports owners over the city’s neighborhoods, they argued, pressing for a community benefits agreement that would provide more. Public officials and the Cavs said that the deal would guarantee that the Cavs would stay in Cleveland through 2034, would create and retain hundreds of jobs in downtown Cleveland, and wouldn’t raise taxes.

After a long, bitter fight, GCC gathered enough petitions to put the issue on the ballot and let voters decide in November 2017, then backed down when Cavs owner Dan Gilbert threatened to withdraw from the deal. At the time, many of GCC’s supporters were bitterly disappointed. “The battle, almost unbelievably, seemed won,” Sam Allard wrote in Scene. “It was said to be the first time in the US that a grassroots campaign had stood up to a sports franchise owner and defeated him. It was historic. That is, until the Greater Cleveland Congregations caved, snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.”

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Yet GCC leaders say the diversion center was a significant win. Recently, The Land‘s Lee Chilcote sat down with GCC leaders to learn more about their perspective on the Q deal fight, why they decided to back down, and why they believe that the diversion center is a win for the community.

Lee Chilcote: What motivated you to get involved in fighting the Q deal? You must have been aware that this was going to be a big, messy, public fight. 

Rev. Jawanza Colvin, Olivet Baptist Church: The work emerged from our community jobs and justice campaign. There was a lack of investment in mental health services. There was a focus on downtown development over neighborhood and community development. We wanted to see investment not only in physical infrastructure but infrastructures that support people and help them live lives of wholeness and wellness.

What triggered us to take action was a conversation we had with leaders in county government. We were told “the credit card is maxed out.” But subsequently, we saw a proposal for an investment of several hundred million dollars in the Q arena. That disparity triggered us to say, “Budgets are moral documents.” And also, “We see a lack of investment in mental health, putting vulnerable members of our community at risk, and we can’t take it anymore.”

Donna Weinberger, GCC organizer: In our work with the consent decree, the issue of race was certainly front and center. There was also a strong component around the treatment of mentally ill and addicted people. We were doing work around de-carcerating the jail, and getting people out of there that don’t belong there, especially people of color.

I remember being told during a tour of the jail that one-third of the people don’t need to be there, and it was like a light bulb went on in my head. If we could do research and turn the problem into an actionable issue, then we thought we could really do something about it.

Rev. John Lentz, Forest Hill Presbyterian Church: The organizing work was coming from within our congregations. We had seen a young man who was part of our congregation struggle with mental illness. Police had arrested him for just acting out on a street corner. There was no crime. They kept him in jail for two to four nights without his meds. They were completely ill-equipped to deal with a person who was on medication. They dropped him off on the street corner downtown a few days later.

Colvin: Diversion centers were not in the consent decree. This is the genius of Donna. There was training (for police officers in dealing with mental health and substance use disorders) but nowhere to take them. We pointed out the gap. We’d had experiences in our congregations, like the Bey family, whose son Omar Arrington-Bey was bipolar and had struggled with addiction. He had a police encounter and died in police custody. There was a very personal impetus for us.

LC: How did Greater Cleveland Congregations make the decision to go against the Q deal? Was that something you weighed carefully? 

Colvin: We were never anti Cavs or anti development. We were anti inequitable development. We used the Q deal to draw attention to the issues that mattered to us. In 2015 and 2016, we were unaware of the Q deal. Yet within weeks of having that conversation with county officials (“the credit card is maxed out”), there was an announcement of the Q deal. We needed a fight. I was told, “You gotta get in it.” We’d developed the skills of organizing but we’d never gotten into a fight. We knew we had to insert ourselves into the public debate if we wanted to be heard.

Keisha Krumm, lead organizer, GCC: We had to decide if we’re going to be a nice civic organization that does nice things, or if we were going to get into the power game and question who gets the money and where it goes. We knew there had been fights with our sister groups in Milwaukee and DC where as a result of their fights, they leveraged money for the community in the midst of cities giving public dollars to sports teams. Those wins helped GCC see how a campaign could be shaped.

Why was it so important for political leaders to pass this deal? 

Colvin: We’re living in this post-industrial age where cities that were powerhouses economically are no longer. Professional sports has become the brand identity for midwestern steel town cities. In the twenty-first century, in this post-industrial moment, we’re trying to move on to a new identity, but sports is still there. Cleveland experienced trauma with the loss of the Browns, and they weren’t willing to jeopardize the Cavs. So, I think that our leaders don’t imagine things differently, but we knew we needed to think imaginatively and creatively about these issues.

LC: What was the backlash like?

Lentz: It was quick and extra strong. We were never anti-Q or anti-Cavs, but they told us we were trying to hurt the central city. At a public meeting at the county, they painted us as anti-jobs. It got personal. There was an all-out push against us.

Weinberger: I got a call late at night telling me that my private mental health practice would be ruined.

Colvin: Members of the unions we worked with got calls late at night and were told to back off. There were efforts to organize against the pastors within their congregations. Our then  congresswoman said in the NY Times, “This is not the way we do things in Cleveland.”

Krumm: It really shifted when the referendum aligned with the mayoral election. We got twenty thousand signatures. The alarm went off, like, ‘Oh now, we gotta stop these people. If they can do this, they could affect the election.’ We became a threat to the status quo.

Colvin: We were collecting signatures in the 2017 primary. Frank Jackson got thirteen thousand votes in the primary. We got twenty thousand signatures (to put the Q deal on the ballot). We got more signatures than there were seats in the Q arena! We got more signatures than the mayor got in the primary. If GCC was running in the primary, we would have won.

LC: You also had four congregations leave: Temple Tifereth Israel, Antioch Baptist Church, Bethany Baptist Church, and Park Synagogue. That must have been tough. 

Colvin: It was very painful. But healing has taken place. Antioch has since returned and is now a member of GCC.

LC: Many of your supporters were disappointed when you withdrew the petitions. They said you “caved.” But you disagree, even though you didn’t say much at the time. 

Colvin: We could have taken the fight further, but we recognized the importance of preserving the integrity of our congregations and our organization. Some of the actions of those who opposed us were regrettable in regards to the discord they planted in our congregations. We made a moral and strategic decision. Some of the efforts taken by some in the civic and business community demonstrated values and tactics that go against our shared religious values.

Lentz: We made a strategic decision. We cut the deal, it was a good deal, and we lived to fight another day. I think what happened then is the best outcome we could have come up with.

Weinberger: The Amish community uses shunning as a powerful force, but that was nothing compared to this. Nobody would talk to us. Nobody would meet with us. We had the scarlet A!

Krumm: It was a moment of, “Do we push to win this? Or do we concede and live to see another day?” This is how the political status quo in Cleveland operates to tamp down democracy and keep people from getting involved. Randy Cunningham writes in his book about the history of community organizing here, “Cleveland politics is a blood sport.”

Colvin: We had to hold our powder. They tried to divide and conquer GCC and individual congregations. We took it on the chin.

LC: What happened next? We know the Q deal moved forward, but how did GCC recover? 

Krumm: We got back up. We got off the mat. And we started working on the crisis centers. It was like, “Yeah, you attacked us, but we’re not going anywhere.” We had to find new allies.

Colvin: We went zero dark thirty. Sam Allard wrote an article about us, and the headline was, “Where art thou, GCC?” And we just didn’t respond. We couldn’t respond. But the recognition of GCC’s power is such that the same people who fought us have sought to repair relationships with us since then.

Krumm: We had a $20 million win (with the crisis diversion center). We had a bold vision, established relationships, and moved to what’s next. That’s part of the power of broad-based organizations. We’re not dependent on foundations. Our congregations pay dues, so we have our own money. Independent power has to be a key part of building community organizing.

Weinberger: We were persistent. If we were shunned, we organized around them and used our allies to move forward. We didn’t get distracted by crises. We focused on our relationships and not getting divided.

Colvin: Around that time a member of GCC passed away and left us money we used to create an endowment. This member had never been on the strategy team. But I remember her sitting in every meeting. I didn’t even know her name, just her face. She left us a note: “To continue doing the work of Jesus.” This was happening even as members of our congregations were threatening to pull back.

Weinberger: We knew we basically had to create the diversion center by ourselves. Unfortunately, the county became more and more interested the more deaths there were at the jail. So, we went to San Antonio because we thought it was important to see an actual facility. We came back and said, “This can actually be done.” We did teach-ins in our organizations. People began to rally together. We had 25 meetings with law enforcement and most major suburbs to get input, answer questions, and get their support. Key leaders emerged.

That wasn’t the end, though, was it? You had a commitment from the county to open the diversion center, but it took a long time – and a lot more work – for it to actually open. 

Krumm: Then, we had a thousand-member assembly in February 2020 at Olivet Baptist Church. There, Chief of Staff to the County Executive Bill Mason made a commitment to the roadmap that we’d laid out. It created momentum and got us to the ribbon cutting. They committed. We wanted two diversion centers, one for the east side and one for the west side, and they said they’d do one. But it has fifty beds, and we’d originally thought we were only going to be able to have sixteen beds at each one.

Weinberger: The Diversion Center has most of the elements of the roadmap that we created. It’s offsite (in other words, it’s not part of the jail). It’s a pre-booking facility (people can be admitted there before they’re criminally charged, helping them avoid development of a criminal record). And there’s also a no wrong door policy, meaning that there are multiple treatment modalities in one building. Ultimately, the diversion center contained most of the elements of the roadmap we’d developed. But we still want, as soon as possible, for it to be open to people who walk in off the street or are brought there by their family, rather than just available for law enforcement drop-off.


On Twitter, a reader suggested that GCC let other groups down when they dropped the petition. The Land followed up with GCC leadership to ask this question, and here’s what they said: “In leading this campaign, GCC placed as one of the central core goals the establishment of Mental Health and Addiction Crisis Diversion Centers to address the lack of investment in real community assets and criminal justice reform. We enlisted the support of organizations, [and] we were clear about our commitments and [the fact that] this campaign would not have had as much impact without every individual and group involved. While enlisting the support of some organizations and having others join with us on their own accord, there was an understanding that GCC was leading this campaign as it had been prior to others signing on. For some groups, they would have certainly wanted us to take this fight further and when working with diverse groups where there might be collaboration, there is not always consensus at every step. Progress is not always accomplished in a straight line. Not every goal of the campaign was reached, but today Cuyahoga County has an operating Mental Health and Addiction Diversion Center, the first in the state of Ohio, and has committed millions of dollars towards finding a permanent site. We are where we are today because of the work we all put into that campaign. It wasn’t perfect, but progress was made and it is evident for all to see.” ■



This story was originally published by The Land, a nonprofit newsroom in Cleveland.

Lee Chilcote is editor of The Land.

Cover image: A campaign rally for the Not All In campaign in opposition to the Q Arena deal. Contributed photo.

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