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From Lemons to Lemonade: Clevelanders Find New Uses for Abandoned Spaces

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The Galleria Erieview in Cleveland is only a shell of the once vibrant downtown shopping destination. The mall, which used to host 48 retail shops, is now mostly empty with a handful of food court restaurants.

While the Galleria has lost nearly all the retail shops, two fruitful things remain: the barrel-shaped glass ceiling and resourceful, dedicated employees.

Vicky Poole, the Galleria's marketing and events director, was flipping through Urban Land magazine when she got the idea for Gardens Under Glass, an organic indoor greenhouse: "I thought it would be perfect to do something with hydroponic gardens here in our building, given that it is an atrium."

Vicky Poole at the Galleria

In addition to providing fresh produce to locals and visitors, the greenhouse is expected to create a few new jobs. They're also accepting volunteer gardeners to work on beds of herbs and greens and vine systems raised hydroponically and in organic soils.

The idea was funded by the Civic Innovation Lab, a local grant-maker known for backing innovative and "slightly wacky" ideas. Since 2003, they have funded 55 ideas with $1.6 million in grants. According to a 2008 study by Cleveland State University, their investments have created 128 jobs, and an economic impact of $9.4 million.

According to Jennifer Thomas, Founding Director of the Civic Innovation Lab, the concept is to fund many risky ideas with small $30,000 grants and "create a diverse culture of entrepreneurship in the process."

The lab also funded Ray's Mountain Bike Park, now the nation's largest indoor bike park. Cleveland Entrepreneur Ray Petro leased an abandoned warehouse on Cleveland's west side and built 100,000 square feet of bike-trick heaven. Ray's serves over 10,000 riders per season and fills close to 1,000 hotel nights in the area.

A view from inside Ray's

"Think about what our city has been through," said Thomas. "[We] lost our manufacturing base and suffered a major housing crisis. None of that has stopped Clevelanders from creating cool little companies that add a new dimension and vibrancy to our city."

And if it's not obvious, she added, "Lab entrepreneurs put their soul into the city."

If empty malls and warehouses are symbols of tough economic times in Cleveland, local entrepreneurs like Vicky and Ray are sure signs that Clevelanders will rebound.

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