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Cleveland has rocked — now it’s time for the city to hustle

A new TV show from LeBron James’ company aims to accelerate his hometown’s sharkiness

“We’re giving people an opportunity to … chase their dreams. I’ve been able to chase mine, so I want people to chase theirs as well.”

That’s how LeBron James described CNBC’s newest TV show, Cleveland Hustles, when he visited Trevor Noah on The Daily Show last week. Hustles, which debuts at 10 p.m. Wednesday, features four Cleveland business leaders who act as the pseudo-Sharks: Kumar Arora, Kathy Futey, Alan Glazen and Jonathon Sawyer.

James as executive producer means many things (more publicity, for sure) and it also gives all the businesses featured on the show a bit of that championship glow. When he returned to the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2014 after four years with the Miami Heat, some experts predicted James would be worth $500 million to Cleveland’s economy. While that number has proven to be more pipe dream than reality, James’s presence in Cleveland has tangibly boosted business in the ‘Land, and some businesses closer to the Quicken Loans Arena have reported a 200 percent increase in sales since James’ return.

Cleveland needed that help — and needs more. Earlier this year, a study focused on the most distressed communities in the country (from 2009 to 2013) was released and Cleveland came in as the second most distressed city in the United States. Only Camden, New Jersey, topped Cleveland, placing the now NBA championship city “ahead” of others such as Flint, Michigan, and Gary, Indiana.

The premise of James’ new show is all about helping to jump-start Cleveland’s economy: Four local businesses will get $200,000 each from investors to create a pop-up store in Cleveland’s Gordon Square Arts District. The area, which the local press says isn’t just about gentrification, is a “nationally recognized model of how the arts can catalyze economic development and job creation.” Hundreds of Cleveland business owners originally pitched the show’s investors about creating pop-ups. That list was cut down to 25, and then to eight. The four investors each select two businesses to work with before eliminating one at the end of the show, giving viewers a final four.

What the investors provide the eight local businesses throughout the show (and to the four winners after it all ends), goes beyond money. “The four of us have decided that besides our personal investment, if we could choose, we want to help others,” said Kathy Futey, one of the show’s investors. “We want to give an opportunity to people that wouldn’t normally have access to capital like that or to talent.” She believes this is going to be bigger than even James envisioned. “He’s gonna see that the four of us have opened our hearts. That’s just who we are.”

Despite some of Cleveland’s documented economic hardships, the city is booming in some important places. Just last year, Cleveland came in at No. 35 on a Top 50 Entrepreneur Friendly Cities list, ahead of places such as Atlanta and New Orleans. “You know,” Arora said of Cleveland, “we work a little harder, we care about the people next to us, we care about our neighbors.” Arora is from Cleveland and went to high school there. “I was the last kid picked in school,” Arora said. “I was the nerd who was building robots and programming and doing DNA research when I was in high school, and so the fact that LeBron chose me as one of the investors — just some kid from Cleveland? It means a lot to me.”

These are the eight businesses fighting for the seed money on Cleveland Hustles: Akron Honey Co., Cleveland Bagel Co., Fount, Groundswell, Old City Libations (formerly Old City Soda), Proper Pig, Randy’s Pickles, and Styles of Success. From a beauty salon to a bagel shop, as James said on The Daily Show.

The man directing the show’s traffic, B. Bonin Bough, was selected by executive producer James and Maverick Carter. He’s the chief media and e-commerce officer at Mondelēz International, one of the world’s largest snack food companies.

“What’s great is that by investing in small businesses that are willing to build storefronts in neighborhoods that are up and coming, you can actually have tremendous impact on the community,” Bough said recently. “I know a lot about taking a business and making them really big. Imagine how much real economic impact we can have. I don’t think people realize how important small businesses are to the vitality of our economy.”

“I think it’s going to be really great,” said Futey. “because there’s so many neighborhoods in Cleveland that need help … We’ve already got our eyes on another neighborhood. We’re asking, ‘what’s the next neighborhood we could do this with?’ ”

The show is set to run for eight episodes on Wednesday nights beginning Aug. 24 on CNBC.

Ryan Cortes is a staff writer for The Undefeated. Lemon pepper his wings.