The Cleveland Guardians: Empowering Small Businesses and Building a Stronger Community
Cleveland Guardians field renovation rendering

In spring of 2022, the Cleveland Guardians selected Mortenson to serve as Construction Manager at Risk for renovations to Progressive Field. The partnership largely focuses on maximizing local and diverse business enterprise participation with targeted diversity, equity and inclusion goals for the renovation projects – initiatives that both Mortenson and the Guardians strongly prioritize. 

“What’s great about the Guardians is how hands-on they are with community empowerment,” says Lynn Littlejohn, vice president of community empowerment at Mortenson. “The actions they’re taking for education and outreach span beyond benefitting the project and are focused on supporting the greater Cleveland community in the long run.”

As part of the selection process, the Guardians insisted on a partnership – at the leadership level – with one or more local, minority and/or female-owned construction companies. Mortensen subsequently chose Independence Construction and The AKA Team to be Associate Construction Managers, allowing for daily collaboration with Cleveland-based companies that understand the benefits and challenges of supplier diversity and workforce participation when building out a project.

“We are honored to work with the Guardians to carry out the shared vision for the future of Progressive Field,” says Logan Gerken, vice president and general manager for Mortenson. “Together, we have been focused on finding the right local collaborators and optimizing the impact of this project on Cleveland-area communities.”

It takes a shared vision and a team effort to make impactful change, and the Cleveland Guardians project has produced a winning playbook.

The Benefits of a Review Group 

Before the project even led off, the Cleveland Guardians got to work establishing a Community Review Group consisting of council members, community members, and representatives from the Guardians and Mortenson to oversee diverse business participation, workforce inclusion goals, and a workforce development program. The board meets quarterly to review progress on these initiatives and share updates on everything happening with the project. 

“The idea behind the Community Review Group is to have a broad and diverse group of people who are largely unaffiliated with the project provide us feedback and best practices based on their experiences within the region,” says Neil Weiss, executive vice president, chief information officer and civic relations for the Cleveland Guardians. “What’s more, participants spread information from our project to their networks, supporting one of our goals of providing a blueprint for future projects."

Staying Connected to Key Leaders

Lynn says, “The Guardians’ overall philosophy is centered around utilizing the project to make a difference in the community. They’re intentional in creating touch points with council members and other city leaders to develop a strategy that helps advance community – both businesses and residents.”

“We’ve worked hard to stay in close contact with key government and civic officials, so they can provide feedback and help tell our story to others. This is especially important in their understanding of how money is being spent, what has worked and what hasn’t. The back-and-forth conversation can help improve programs and community impact in the future,” says Neil.

Educating and Empowering Small Businesses and Individuals 

Educational sessions open to any business in the community provide advice on how to prepare a bid, get certified for specific work, and other important topics not always available to small business owners.

Business consultancy APB & Associates was brought in as part of the Project Management Advisory team to host workshops to help educate on things like capability statements, estimating, how to find micro-loans, mentor-protege relationships and more.  “The majority of attendees won't even work on our project, but if they learn from these workshops (that only exist because of our project), then hopefully they can grow and win work on the next job,” says Neil. 

On the workforce development side, the board organizes career fairs to inform community members of work and apprenticeship opportunities. These events help ensure that historically underserved members have a chance to be gainfully employed and change their economic status. “We’ve worked hard to use this platform as a basis for community work, even if it does not tie directly to the construction,” says Neil. “APB have been instrumental in turning our aspirations into reality and we wouldn’t be able to make forward progress without them.” 

One such example is the Grand Slam Job Fair, where the Guardians partner with city council members to host events across wards, bringing in construction and trade teams to help build awareness around career opportunities in these fields. Removing barriers to access is a critical part of increasing opportunities for businesses and community members. Holding sessions throughout Cleveland meant people didn’t have to drive long distances or could use public transportation. “They really focus on accessibility and convenience for the sessions and career fairs,” adds Lynn. “Instead of hosting them during working hours, everything was scheduled on evenings and weekends, so people didn’t have to miss work to participate.” 

“We’ve also brought in local, unrelated businesses from nearby neighborhoods as well as the Guardians and our concessionaire (Delaware North), who have a lot of job opportunities available. The genesis of these events was to demonstrate how public funding could in turn benefit the residents. We’ve done two of these events and expect to do another 2-3 more,” Neil says.  

Gaining New Perspectives 

“Awareness is key. I’m always amazed at how few people understand what a Community Benefits Plan is or how one works but reference it because it’s the right thing to do. It's all about education and building awareness of the problem we are trying to help solve in a small – but hopefully impactful – way. For example, I learned on this project that one of the biggest reasons that small, local, diverse firms don't often bid packages is that they can't afford to float capital or payroll for a long time until the CM pays them. If they have to wait three months to be paid, they can't support their company and employees, so they won’t even bother to bid.  We have focused on shortening the pay cycle as much as possible. While this isn't rocket science, it does require persistence,” Neil says. 

Going Beyond the Numbers 

Even though goals and numbers are associated with diversity initiatives, they do not define the “why” behind teams making diverse business participation, workforce inclusion goals, and workforce development programs part of their sports construction project. It’s about so much more than how things look on paper, but rather how people’s lives are impacted.  

“The goals associated with community empowerment are just a tool to help businesses grow,” says Lynn. “You need those metrics to help measure a program’s success. But behind all of that is genuine passion and dedication to improve the situation and position of small and diverse businesses.” And when businesses can grow, they hire more people and provide the community with better paying opportunities.  

“Many (if not most) community benefits plans only focus on the levels they set for supplier diversity spend and workforce participation,” says Neil. “These are very important, but then the project will start and end. But if you look beyond the numbers, there are lots of other things that can have a lasting impact like helping small firms grow bigger and win new work. Or providing individuals with essential skills and meaningful employment that ultimately changes their trajectory and that of their future generations.”  

Immaculate Cleaning is a small, local, minority business enterprise that has been awarded work on the Guardians project. Neil continues, “Everyone has been really impressed by their capabilities and willingness to dig in and be a true partner. Even better though, is the fact that we’ve given them opportunities beyond this project that will hopefully strengthen their business for years.” 

If you’d like to learn how your sports project can incorporate diverse business participation, workforce inclusion goals, and workforce development programs, get in touch!