Mark Schweitzer is a writer and lifelong resident of Akron, Ohio. Today he's sharing a guest article about the risks of putting all your economic eggs in one basket — and the benefits of a diversified economy. It's a lesson that all our communities can learn from.
For over half a century, Akron, Ohio proudly wore the moniker of Rubber Capital of The World. As corporate and manufacturing home to Goodyear, Firestone, B.F. Goodrich, General Tire and many other tire manufacturers, the city boomed as America fell in love with the automobile. For decades, its citizens took solace in the fact that the soot that settled over its neighborhoods each day was the by-product of the rubber industry’s high-wage manufacturing jobs.
It’s easy to forget, however, that the city’s success did not start with the tire shops of the 20th century. During the Victorian age, Akron had developed a strong and well-balanced economy, initially centered on the transportation advantages offered by the Ohio Canal. It had slowly grown over time into a vibrant and prosperous city, featuring world-class manufacturers and distributors of cereal, farm machinery, clay products and books. Yet by the beginning of the 20th century, that healthy and diverse economy — based on a wide array of small, medium-size and large manufacturers — was about to become eclipsed by the promise of rubber.
While the eventual growth and domination of the rubber industry was not the result of a singular decision on the part of city leaders of the time, their inclination to go “all in” on tire manufacturing was to have an indelible impact on Akron; one that lasts to this day. It would make the city one of the fastest-growing in the world, as the population grew from about 69,000 in 1910 to over 208,000 by 1920, making it America’s poster child for economic success.
But this big bet — not on a single employer, but on a single industry — required Akron to ante up its future at significant cost.
Any reader of Strong Towns understands the benefits of a Democratized Economy—one that spreads a community’s economic growth among a broad collection of small and large players, and across a wide array of industries and businesses. The benefits are well-known; local economies become more resilient, negative impacts within one industry are more easily mitigated, and overall growth is more manageable in terms of incremental renewal.
Before rubber arrived, this was precisely the kind of economy that Akron enjoyed. Over a period of about 50 years, the city had slowly transformed itself from a quiet and industrious canal town into a vibrant Victorian powerhouse; home to dozens of successful industries with global reach. The city’s farm machinery could be found as far away as Australia, and its books and encyclopedias were distributed worldwide. The city had gradually grown in all directions, thanks to a steady stream of immigrants from Germany, Italy, Britain and Ireland, who brought their unique skills in brewing, stone carving, pottery works, construction and retailing to add to the local business mix. The arrival of the rubber industry put the city’s already healthy economy on a triple-dose of steroids.
What if the city had just continued to grow at a more steady and incremental pace, and been allowed to process its success in a more organic and manageable fashion? We'd be living in a very different Akron.
The Rubber Boom brought thousands of jobs and unprecedented economic growth, but as history has shown, it wasn’t sustainable over the long term — only for about 60 years. Those tire-manufacturing jobs didn’t move overseas in the 1980’s; they started moving to the Sun Belt in the 1960’s, with lower labor costs, newer, more efficient factories and better air conditioning.
Today, the city has lost about one-third of its 1960 peak population of just over 290,000, now currently around 197,000. Most of that loss came from 1960 to 1980, but being steady and gradual, the overall effect was not so apparent until the end of that period. Without the Rubber Boom, it’s not so hard to imagine that Akron might have grown to its present size over time, rather than shrinking to it.
Like many midwestern municipalities, Akron’s infrastructure still sustains a city that was built as a home to many more people. One legacy to that rapid, almost overnight 20th century growth is the huge, EPA-mandated reconstruction of the city’s combined sewer system, which will cost over $1 billion by the time it’s complete. Clearly, its put a strain on city finances.
Making the Most of What You Have
Despite the population and job losses and the significant financial challenges, the city has refocused its economic development strategies in a way that is not only smarter and more manageable, but also more in tune with its 19th century past.
While a previous city administration focused on luring large industries to town and promoting Akron at major overseas events like the huge Hannover Industrial Fair in Germany, the new administration of Mayor Dan Horrigan is looking to spur and help sustain growth from the bottom up. To this end, the city has established new hubs to educate and support local entrepreneurs, added an Innovation & Entrepreneurship Advocate to the Department of Economic Development, and promoted new local events to bring area entrepreneurs and small businesses together. In a former B.F. Goodrich manufacturing plant, the city reformatted its business accelerator program to create the new Bounce Innovation Hub, which has expanded its role as a business incubator to becoming a one-stop-shop for entrepreneurs and tech start-ups, involving area mentors, universities and companies in entrepreneurial activities.
This spirit of local entrepreneurship reaches beyond tech, too — as artists, craftspeople and makers of all kinds have access to training, sales venues and foundation-funded fellowships that are designed to help turn their creative energy into successful businesses.
“We’ve created a climate where entrepreneurs are encouraged and supported across the whole community,” says Heather Roszczyk, who serves as Akron’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Advocate. “From working space, advice, resources and financing — even publicity — the city is sending a message that dreams can come true in Akron, and we’re here to help.”
Another example of this change in focus — and perhaps its most visible — was eBay’s selection of Akron as the initial site for its “Retail Revival” program, a new training program for local retailers and entrepreneurs providing advice and online support to help their businesses reach worldwide markets. As eBay scouted the country for the best place to start the program, it was looking for a place with a strong eBay selling community, as well as local support and a diverse community of startups and small businesses. One element of eBay’s program that was particularly attractive was its focus on growing and providing exposure to local business, rather than competing with them — a common complaint about online retail giant Amazon.
“We have a humanistic vision of technology can do. It isn’t about the drones and the robots,” eBay President & CEO Devin Wenig said. “It’s about people. It’s about small businesses. It’s about using technology to make people competitive and vibrant and to put life into communities, and not take it out.”
The small-scale, bottom-up approach demonstrated by eBay represents the antithesis of Amazon’s well-publicized search for a second headquarters — another bet that may cost, rather than pay off, the city who eventually wins it.
Appropriately enough, the city’s announcement of the eBay program was made at Akron’s popular Northside Marketplace, a brand-new downtown shopping and entertainment venue that features dozens of local start-up and small-business storefronts. Created by developer Joel Testa, the marketplace provides retailers and makers unique space choices ranging from affordable square footage to renting individual display shelves. As Testa himself has said, “It’s all about creating a bunch of successful local entrepreneurs.”
Back to Basics
Even as it reaches outside of Akron, the city’s effort now focuses on smaller, incremental activities that can produce bigger results down the road. Mayor Dan Horrigan recently went to Austin, Texas to help promote the city’s advantages at SXSW 2018. Instead of just fishing for established companies to relocate, a lot of time went towards reaching out to young talent—individual entrepreneurs who could visit Akron, decide to stay and eventually start a business of their own.
"In the last decade, 67% of new U.S. jobs have come from scalable start-ups and existing, small business growth,” notes Horrigan. “Business and talent attraction remain important pillars of our economic strategy. At the same time, we work to maintain a balanced approach that also lets our local companies know we have their back.”
For those who are familiar with Akron’s history, this new approach is nothing new; it’s simply a return to an earlier time, when smart, talented people decided to bring their big ideas to town, establishing successful businesses of all kinds. A lot of those people came almost empty-handed, taking advantage of the active, positive and innovative environment to become industry leaders. It’s a formula that can still work today.
Now the city seeks to re-create this Platform for Success by lowering the barriers to entry for small business, providing tools and education, and creating a rich environment where smart people can thrive. The risks are few and manageable, but history has shown that the rewards can make all the difference to the local economy.
(Top photo source: Boston Public Library Tichnor Brothers collection)
About the Author
Mark Schweitzer is a creative writer, book publisher and lifelong resident of Akron, Ohio. His passion for architecture and historic preservation has led him to research the development of urban planning, historic neighborhoods, and today’s best practices in city renewal. Currently a member of Akron’s Urban Design and Historic Preservation Commission, he is guiding the effort to have Akron’s Goodyear Heights neighborhood listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.