|Just about every year, we enter our annual Rating the Suburbs feature in statewide journalism competitions. Some years we win, some we don’t.
This year, we earned an honorable mention from The Press Club of Cleveland in the consumer reporting category. We last took top honors in 2005. It’s nice to be recognized, though winning isn’t the point. It sounds like a cliché, but it’s true. We submit Rating the Suburbs because we’re proud of what goes into it — and because our readers care about the information in it. While every issue of the magazine contains reader-service reporting, Rating the Suburbs is our largest commitment to that philosophy.
In return, readers make this issue our top newsstand seller. In 2007, more than 7,100 copies sold at bookstores and supermarkets.
Because of this, Rating the Suburbs is almost a year-round project. Work begins soon after the previous year’s issue is complete. We evaluate what we liked most about the issue, what could be improved and how others are reacting. Then we make changes to the surveys that go out to the mayors, police chiefs and school superintendents in January. Everyone on staff and a crew of interns are involved.
Each year, we try to improve what we offer. In 2006, we commissioned a random survey of 400 suburban Clevelanders to uncover what people wanted in a community and how happy they were with where they lived. When we asked what was most important, 29 percent said safety, 19 percent picked schools and 11 percent cited home value. These same criteria have been at the core of our rankings since Rating the Suburbs began in 1993.
In 2006, we also began writing about every community in the rankings to get beyond the numbers.
Last year, in response to many readers who wondered why we didn’t cover places such as Bainbridge Township, Richfield Village or Kirtland, we added 11 new suburbs to our rankings.
This year, we’ve made more improvements. During our 2006 survey, we discovered that 59 percent of people said a walkable community was extremely important when selecting a place to live. With gas prices nearing $4 a gallon, it’s not surprising that people want a neighborhood where they can walk to the store or take an evening stroll.
To measure walkability, we calculated the percentage of roads with sidewalks in each community. Thus, for the first time in several years, we’ve added a completely new factor to our rankings. Even with our best attempts, Rating the Suburbs isn’t without controversy. Most people like where they live, and some are happy to call us when they feel their town has been slighted.
Adding new suburbs in outlying counties, however, produced more bile from some local officials than anything we’d done in years. We were pitting communities against one another, they charged. We are the reason people are moving farther from the core city, others argued. They were going to boycott, they said. So earlier this year, publisher Frank Bird and I met with several concerned suburban mayors and other officials.
I understood their frustration. Every day they go to work trying make their towns better — a job that has only been made tougher by a sagging economy. But I also knew some of their arguments just aren’t true. Cuyahoga County has been losing population since 1970 — long before we debuted Rating the Suburbs. And communities do just fine pitting themselves against one another without our help. (Just ask Macedonia officials how they feel about Norandex Distribution leaving town for nearby Hudson.)
When several suburbs stonewalled our informational surveys, we were forced to file requests under Ohio’s public records law, which makes public documents available to the media and regular citizens alike.
Having all of this data about Northeast Ohio communities in a single place helps our readers make an informed choice when looking for a new home. It’s important no matter what you value most in a community — even if your value system doesn’t align with our rating system. Because in the end, if everyone has the information, it’s the readers who ultimately win. n