CLEVELAND, Ohio -- Three years ago, Cleveland was hyped as a potential hub for blockchain, a digital ledger technology most known for its use with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
Blockland conferences held in 2018 and 2019 were supposed to position Cleveland as a leader in the technology, which can also be used to transfer car titles, record real estate transactions and automate government records, among other functions. There were plans for transforming Tower City into CityBlock, a space for both the public to enjoy and entrepreneurs to get work done.
Now, the blockchain dream has stalled.
The ideas biggest proponent, businessman Bernie Moreno, is running for U.S. Senate. Any future conferences have also garnered little support, so the possibility of Blockland making a comeback is low.
Its a sharp turn for an idea that once boasted public and private support. The city of Cleveland and Cuyahoga County bet on Blockland, contributing a combined $200,000 for the 2018 and 2019 conferences. Moreno said last year that Blockland had $1.1 million in private investment.
Moreno, who owns a blockchain company called Ownum, stepped away from his role as Clevelands main blockchain enthusiast because of his Senate campaign. He hopes someone can step up and replace him.
I think its really important, Moreno said in a July interview with cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer. We cant slide backwards into irrelevancy when it comes to being at the forefront of technology. As I said when we started Blockland, everything is tech now.
Even if someone fills Morenos shoes, it could be difficult to receive financial support for another conference.
Medina native Josh Holmes is passionate about blockchain, and said he would be willing to be the leader of a future Blockland conference. Holmes is the CEO and majority owner of Lightspeed Hosting, a company that does infrastructure hosting and runs an extension cloud hosting business.
I would have no issues trying to bring in the right people to do all the same things we had done those two years, Holmes said in a recent interview with cleveland.com. The work doesnt bother me. The business and the craziness of running a conference doesnt bother me.
However, a future Blockland conference would once again need support from large sponsors such as IBM or KeyBank, who backed the prior conferences. Large companies may not be willing to support another effort, Holmes said.
Holmes does not want to take on the financial risk on his own, because a loss could affect his company.
No plans were in store for a future Blockland conference even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Northeast Ohio in the spring of 2020. Destination Cleveland, which organized the 2018 conference and provided staff to work in-kind, said in 2020 that it would not continue as the fiscal agent for Blockland Solutions.
The organization was the fiscal agent through its affiliated 501(c)(3) organization, Spirit of Cleveland. That meant it received income, paid losses and assumed all financial risk associated with Blockland Solutions.
Destination Clevelands involvement with Blockland was concentrated in year one of the initiative and focused heavily on the planning and implementation of the Blockland Solutions Conference, Destination Cleveland President and CEO David Gilbert said in an emailed statement in July. We were not involved immediately prior to the onset of the pandemic and do not anticipate future involvement unless there is a specific request made that fits within our organization mission, priorities, staff capacity and budget.
While Blockland appears to be fading, the possibility of new leadership in Cuyahoga County could drum up renewed enthusiasm.
Former Cuyahoga County commissioner Lee Weingart, who is running for county executive in 2022, said he would support bringing back Blockland and other advanced tech conferences if he is elected.
Weingart said Cleveland and Cuyahoga County need to be innovators when it comes to cutting-edge technology. He also believes its important to cultivate an environment that will help Northeast Ohio attract and retain young professionals.
We have to make Cleveland and Cuyahoga County more attractive for young people to stay here or come here, Weingart said. And you do that by having cutting-edge, cool technology jobs like blockchain jobs. So I would be very supportive of any efforts to create those jobs in Cuyahoga County and in Cleveland particularly so we can keep moving forward as a community.
Holmes also hopes to see renewed support for efforts like Blockland as Cleveland transitions to Mayor-elect Justin Bibbs administration. He believes Bibb understands the importance of technology and startups in the area.
Holmes noted that the city received a substantial amount of COVID-19 economic relief from the federal government. He hopes some of it will be used to support efforts that could transform Cleveland into a tech hub.
Rather than giving $200 million to revamp the (Guardians) stadium, which is perfectly fine. Theres nothing wrong with it. Id much rather see them dump $1 million into this conference once a year and fostering its growth and the idea of Cleveland as a startup capital, Holmes said.
Three years ago, blockchain was still seen as a shiny new toy. Now its a more mature technology, said Steve Santamaria, the CEO of Folio Photonics, a Solon company focused on the future of archival data storage.
However, Santamaria worries Cleveland may have missed its opportunity to be a blockchain leader, as cities like Toronto and Miami have stepped up over the past few years.
In 2018, there were none of those so saying hey, its going to be in Cleveland, lets attract people to put their efforts here. Lets build up a developer base and community and solutions base here, there kind of was that opportunity, Santamaria said in an interview with cleveland.com in July. I dont know if that exists anymore.
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