CityMusic Cleveland - official website

The News Herald: January 29, 2009

By working in perfect harmony with two Lake County communities, one area nonprofit has found success at a time when many others are struggling.

In what could be described as a win-win situation, CityMusic Cleveland, a professional chamber orchestra, has been performing free classical music concerts throughout Northeast Ohio for the past five years. In return for a program they may not be able to host otherwise, city officials — including those in Willoughby and Willoughby Hills — offer money-saving support to CityMusic Cleveland.

"It's been a wonderful relationship between a nonprofit and governmental organization," said Willoughby Hills City Council President Kevin Malacek, referring to his city. "It shows they can work together very well."

Building working relationships with city leaders has been a successful strategy for CityMusic Cleveland since Day One, Executive Director Eugenia Strauss said.

"It started to be a centerpiece of our thinking when we started this orchestra because it occurred to us that probably 80 percent of the people in Northeast Ohio were not attending live performances of classical music," said Strauss.

The group found that people often were either unfamiliar with classical music or the city in which the music was performed, or that the price of admission was prohibitive. "People don't want to invest in something they don't know anything about," he said.

With those factors in mind, Strauss started meeting with officials across the region — including Cleveland, Cleveland Heights, Elyria, Rocky River and Strongsville — to discuss how they and CityMusic Cleveland might build mutually beneficial relationships.

"We offer advertising on our Web site and on Channel 12, we list them in our programs, and we distribute and post their fliers," explained Willoughby Hills City Councilman David Reichelt, adding that the city's recreation commission has contributed funds to CityMusic Cleveland in the past and that officials have written letters on the nonprofit's behalf to help it secure additional funds.

"In (Lake County), Lake Hospital (System) is a very big supporter of us," Strauss said. "But that came about because the mayors introduced me and helped me make a pitch that conveyed that this is a very big asset to the community."

Concerts in Willoughby and Willoughby Hills generally attract 500 to 600 people, Reichelt said. An added benefit for the cities is that the shows attract people from throughout the region — people who tend to also eat out or shop before the concert.

"(The concerts) give people another reason to come to downtown Willoughby," Mayor David Anderson said. "Those people discover our restaurants, and they bring their friends. It's been great."

In fact, the nonprofit's Web site lists some local restaurants and attractions to help those visiting a city for the first time. In western Lake County, there seems to be no shortage of such visitors.

"Every concert we give in Willoughby and Willoughby Hills is 'sold out.' You couldn't fit a mouse into that room because those places are bursting at the seams with people," Strauss said. "We do surveys, and people come from within a 60-mile radius. We have people coming from as far away as Hiram."

Its approach has been so successful, CityMusic Cleveland has emerged as a model for other organizations in these tough economic times.

"I know that (foundations) have informed a number of nonprofits to come and ask us how we build relationships with each community," Strauss said. "At the moment, you're seeing a lot of nonprofits going under, closing their doors, laying off people and doing all kinds of things to preserve their status. Everyone has to become much smarter in what they're doing."

Reichelt agreed that CityMusic Cleveland's unique approach is one other organizations should mimic.

"We don't have any relationship with an organization like this," he said. "This is a program that isn't replicated on a local basis anywhere that I know of."

Likewise, Strauss has found working with Willoughby and Willoughby Hills to be equally beneficial.

"I wish I could clone each mayor and each city council. They've been really terrific and so enthusiastic," she said. "They've also been very demanding that we do our very best, and I think that we have proven that by having to move every two years into a bigger (venue)."

by Michael C. Butz,