Young professionals return to Cleveland amid pandemic, encouraged to stay by Engage! Cleveland (and their parents)

CLEVELAND, Ohio — When the coronavirus pandemic shut down their offices in Chicago, Benjamin and Katie Becker came home to Cleveland.

The two have been working remotely from Katie Becker’s parents’ home in Solon, while both sets of grandparents provide childcare for the couple’s 6-month-old son.

Benjamin Becker said the plan all along was to return to Cleveland, but the pandemic sped up the timetable. “We anticipated staying in Chicago a little longer,” said Becker, who works for LinkedIn, the professional networking service. “Covid made it very clear what we had to do.”

The Beckers’ return to Northeast Ohio isn’t an isolated tale. It’s being repeated across the region, as young professionals flee high rents, government shutdowns and congested living quarters in big cities impacted by the ongoing health pandemic.

If you’re going to work remotely, why not do it from Cleveland?

The trend gave Ashley Basile Oeken, president of Engage! Cleveland, an idea. Her organization’s mission is to attract, engage and retain young professionals in Northeast Ohio. Why not capitalize on pandemic-related relocation trends by targeting former Clevelanders in other cities to lure them back home?

The group launched its Discover Cleveland campaign in June, using social-media advertising to target young professionals in five markets – New York City, Chicago, Cincinnati, Columbus and Pittsburgh – and try to interest them in returning to Cleveland.

The group is targeting three demographics of young professionals: singles, couples and young families.

“This is the first time we’ve ever done a campaign like this, simply because of the unique opportunity that was presented by the pandemic,” said Oeken.

The pitch dovetails with a major effort started last year by Destination Cleveland, the region’s tourism bureau, which sought to join organizations, including Engage! Cleveland, in a campaign to raise the city’s profile among job candidates. That effort has been put on hold while the agency deals with budget cuts, but should start up again in late 2020 or early 2021, said bureau spokeswoman Emily Lauer.

Engage! Cleveland’s ads have garnered more than 1 million views, with 5,000 people taking the proactive step to visit Engage! Cleveland’s website seeking more information about job prospects, the city’s low cost of living, abundant outdoor space and more.

The organization recently launched the second phase of its campaign, which seeks to target possible relocation candidates with more information about the benefits of Cleveland, connecting potential residents with the information to help them decide.

“We’re reaching out to those who have requested more information, trying to determine what they’re looking for, what would be most helpful,” said Oeken.

Oeken, who is 35, said the idea for the campaign came after members of the organization’s board shared anecdotes about their adult children moving home from places like New York and the West Coast. “The first time I heard it, I thought, ‘Oh, that’s interesting,’ ” she said. Then she heard it again and again.

Among those who shared her story: board member Jennifer Cohen, whose three adult children returned home to Pepper Pike last spring. Two of them came from New York City, which shut down almost entirely early in the year because of the pandemic; the third is a student at Ohio State, who returned home mid-semester from Columbus.

Cohen’s son, Caleb, has since returned to New York City, where he works remotely from his Manhattan apartment. Her daughter, Hannah, is in the theater industry, which remains shut down indefinitely. She’ll likely be in Cleveland for the foreseeable future.

“Almost all of my friends left New York,” said Hannah Cohen, 23. “I had been there for five years. I didn’t want to give it up.”

But without work, and an expensive apartment in Brooklyn up for a new lease, it didn’t make sense to stay. “I had to put my head above my heart. I think it was the right decision.”

So she’s working as a nanny in Cleveland and saving money for an eventual return to New York.

Jennifer Cohen, meanwhile, has mixed feelings about her kids returning home. “Obviously, I loved having them here. I think most parents would love to have their adult kids close by.”

But she also wants them to be happy and working in the fields that they love.

Cohen, a senior vice president for talent management firm Ratliff & Taylor, said the reaction to the Engage! Cleveland campaign has exceeded expectations.

During this time of crisis, she said, “many people are reconsidering where they want to live, what they want accessible to them. Maybe they’re seeing Cleveland differently.”

Indeed, Hannah Cohen said she has developed a new appreciation for her hometown in recent months. “Just sitting outside on my parents’ deck – you can’t get that in New York unless you live in a fancy building,” she said. “I think if I wasn’t in the theater and film industry, I could see myself living here.”

The Beckers, meanwhile, probably are here for good.

Benjamin Becker said many things about Cleveland that he took for granted when he was younger matter more to him now.

“The stuff in high school we didn’t really appreciate – we really appreciate it now,” said Becker, 29. The Cleveland Metroparks are just one example.

“When you’re 17, you don’t say to your buddies, ‘Let’s go for a walk,’ ” he said. “Thirty-year-olds like to do that.”


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