Cleveland medical mart: Has strategy changed? Does anybody know?

A rendering of the Cleveland medical mart

MMPI’s got some explaining to do.

The Chicago-based property developer behind the Cleveland Medical Mart & Convention Center may or may not be changing its strategy on the project, and that (possibly) new strategy may or may not bring to the city the long-promised 300,000 visitors per year that the mart and convention center were projected to draw. Luring out-of-town visitors — and their expense accounts — was of course the whole premise on which the medical mart was sold to the taxpayers of Cuyahoga County, who never voted on it anyway.

So it’s fair to wonder: If MMPI was wrong about the viability of its initial strategy, is it wrong about the number of visitors a (possibly modified) medical mart and convention center could bring to Cleveland?

That’s why it’s important that MMPI lay out exactly what that strategy is — and be honest about the change in emphasis, if there is in fact a change. Right now it’s not clear, and MMPI wouldn’t make General Manager Brian Casey available for an interview this week. So we can only go on what he’s said in previous interviews. In a Plain Dealer interview last week, Casey sought to tamp down comments he’d made in a prior interview to Scene about a shifting focus for the medical mart, raising questions about how forthcoming MMPI will be about any strategic shift.


Casey told the Plain Dealer that MMPI is not changing the strategy behind the medical mart to emphasize medical education, instead of the mall-of-medical-equipment-manufacturers approach that MMPI officials had long discussed. But that claim doesn’t exactly mesh with this quote he gave to Scene:

The key part is that this is not intended to be modeled after marts that show furniture or marts that are design centers. It’s a mistake to take a model that works well in one area and try to plug it into an industry that doesn’t work that way.

Wait a second — not modeled after MMPI’s other furniture and design marts?

That’s not how the medical mart was sold to the public. In fact, the idea of MMPI leveraging its admirably successful history with other marts — simply applying best practices it had no doubt picked up over the years — into the healthcare arena was perceived as a huge plus for the project.

That’s how former MMPI president Chris Kennedy characterized it to the PD in 2007.

“It’s a successful formula we’ve proven time and again,” he said.

Exactly: We’ve done it before, we can do it again. We’ve applied it to industries A and B, now it’s as simple as applying it to industry C.

So is Casey now backing away from that approach and instead planning to make the mart a center that emphasizes medical education over medical equipment sellers?

Maybe not. He told the PD that there is “a bit more of an accentuation on the education and training aspect” but that’s always been the plan. Casey said that he’d overstated the role education would play in the medical mart in his earlier interview with Scene.

Jeff Appelbaum, a Cleveland attorney who’s helping the county manage the medical mart’s construction and design process, essentially reiterated Casey’s “nothing-to-see-here” claims (and deserves praise for at least fielding questions on the project).

“I don’t believe there’s been a wholesale change of strategy,” Appelbaum said. “This is a communication issue. Education was always a piece of the plan.”

A representative of Cuyahoga County Executive Ed Fitzgerald didn’t return a call, but Fitzgerald expressed concern to the Plain Dealer about MMPI’s lack of communication on a possible strategic shift. “They’ve got to do a better job explaining the benchmarks they want to hit,” he said.

To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with a business reworking its plans to better respond to market needs. In fact, an education emphasis — if that’s where the medical mart is headed — is likely a better approach than a focus on medical equipment sellers, the largest and best-known of which didn’t seem all that interested in the medical mart concept in the first place.

But it’s important that MMPI explain its vision for the medical mart exactly as it is today to the taxpayers who’ll largely foot the project’s bill — not to mention potential customers. If the emphasis is changing, then why wasn’t education the focus all along? If it isn’t, then exactly what did Casey mean when he said, “It’s a mistake to take a model that works well in one area and try to plug it into an industry that doesn’t work that way”?

How does that not signal a shift in strategy when MMPI previously said it would merely leverage its existing model and apply it to healthcare? So what’s the model that MMPI is pursuing for the medical mart? And why was the project sold as essentially a carbon copy of MMPI’s other marts?

And, for good measure, how would a change in strategy affect MMPI’s projection of 300,000 visitors per year? It’s difficult to believe it wouldn’t impact that number at all.

Noted convention center skeptic Heywood Sanders, a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio who the Dallas Observer called “the leading independent authority when it comes to convention centers,” seemed to snarl his disdain for MMPI’s projections through clenched teeth during a phone interview.

When asked whether a medical mart with a greater concentration of equipment sellers or medical education providers would be more likely to hit MMPI’s projection of 300,000 visitors per year, he brusquely rejected the premise of the question.

“It was never realistic and it never made any sense,” he said of the projection.

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