An effort is underway in Cleveland to rebrand the city as a national tech hub.
The Blockland initiative hopes to develop a local economy based on blockchain technology — the software behind cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin. But it's a challenge for a city that has more of a manufacturing heritage than a technology one.
Believeland was Cleveland's catch-phrase when, in 2016, LeBron James and the Cavaliers delivered the city's first sports championship in half a century.
Now LeBron is gone and some Clevelanders are looking for something new to believe in.
Bernie Moreno thinks that should be embracing Cleveland as a tech town. Moreno is a blockchain evangelist and luxury car dealer, who's quick to resist a sports comparison.
"I know LeBron James, and I'm no LeBron James. Let's get that out of the way."
Moreno is trying to marshal his salesmanship skills to promote Cleveland as a center for blockchain innovation.
"If you're going to have a blockchain startup, this is the place you do it," he says. "If you're going to invest in blockchain startups, this is the place I would invest in. If you're a developer [or] you're a student who wants to do blockchain development, Cleveland is the place you do it."
Blockchain is a basically a digital lockbox that stores any kind of transaction in a secure 'block' that's shared across independent computers. It's the technology behind the cryptocurrency Bitcoin, but it is quickly transitioning to other uses, like digital home deeds, municipal bonds.
"Digital car titles, digital drivers' licenses, birth certificates, college degrees, medical records," adds Moreno.
One Cleveland startup is even testing a blockchain-based voting app.
Hilary Carter is managing director of the Blockchain Research Institute in Toronto, a think-tank laying out road-maps for business uses of the technology.
"Cleveland stepped up to be the very first city outside of Canada to want access to the thought leadership we're creating at the BRI."
Here's what Moreno says it would take to build Blockland: The city would need to attract around 1,000 software developers to the region, who will help launch a couple dozen blockchain based startups.
Moreno is planning to open a 100,000 square foot downtown campus to incubate those companies, complete with a K-12 school.
"We call the school Genesis because in the blockchain world, Genesis is the first block in the blockchain," says Moreno.
He has also put together a dream team of Cleveland civic leaders to help organize a Blockland Cleveland conference in December.
Suzanne Rivera is Vice President of research at Case Western Reserve University and likes the ambitious idea. "I really think of it as a movement," she says. "This is going to be the way of the future, we can either let it pass us by, or we can seize this opportunity."
But many here struggle with understanding blockchain itself and its potential benefits. Waverly Willis is the first barber in Cleveland to accept Bitcoin as payment, and an early backer of the Blockland project. "It's regular blue-collar guys that's saying, 'why do I need to know about this stuff?' And so you need a guy like me to explain it," he says.
Willis says Cleveland needs a plan that goes beyond the city's CEOs and academic leaders to lift people in his neighborhood.
Bernie Moreno agrees. "This whole thing works when the average citizen of Cleveland is dramatically smarter than the average citizen anywhere else relative to blockchain technology," he says.
From Believeland to Blockland — it's a technological 'hail Mary' of sorts from a city hoping to stake its claim as a blockchain capital.
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