Laura Dorwart is an Ohio-based writer who shares today's guest article about a unique small business marketplace in Akron.
Small business owners in Akron, Ohio face a variety of challenges — something Joel Testa, the second-generation president of family-owned real estate development firm Testa Companies, knows all too well. In particular, he says, it’s difficult for burgeoning startups to get the kinds of resources together (like funding, space, and customer volume) that make a brick-and-mortar store possible. The ones that do “make it big” often move to a larger market, like Cleveland, and outside the bounds of Akron. Testa says he looked around Akron, where he was born and raised, and asked himself, “How do we become an incubator for retail so that local creative people can find affordable space to grow their businesses? How do we bring all the myriad resources of the community to bear on them?”
That’s why Joel, along with his collaborators at Testa Companies, developed Northside Marketplace — the downtown Akron retail and dining hotspot that serves as a community marketplace, social hangout, and culinary destination. (Testa also led the development of Northside Lofts, in the same building, and the nearby Courtyard by Marriott.)
The Furnace Street space in Akron’s Northside District, billed as a “shop/eat/chill” haven for Akronites, opened on Black Friday in 2017 with support from the Knight Foundation and local investors. The mixed-use venue caters to an urban millennial customer base and now provides storefronts to nearly 40 vendors selling specialty goods, locally sourced food, and unique handcrafted items.
Current vendors range from Akron Honey to art and jewelry from Poodle Skirt Studio, custom apparel at Rubber City Clothing, bicycle sales and repair at Dirty River Bicycle Works, and jam and jellies sourced from local farms at Jimmy’s Jam. Testa describes it as a retail and dining destination with all the amenities of a mall, albeit with an urban flair, more opportunities for social interaction, and more eclectic food options, including vegan, paleo, and gluten-free treats.
Food and Community Attract people downtown
For Testa, the Marketplace isn’t just business. It’s part of a grassroots effort to revitalize Akron and the Northside District, starting by luring potential shoppers and diners out of the surrounding suburbs and tempting them all the way downtown. The first step is to allay some of the most common fears and misconceptions about high-density urban areas, Testa explains: “We think people are intimidated by downtown if they don’t work there. We need to break down the myths and the fears that it’s unsafe, it’s congested, it’s difficult to navigate, it’s hard to find parking. That’s what we’ve tried to do with the Marketplace.”
And people venture out of their enclaves and get a little brave for two things, according to Testa: good food and drink, and community. “People will drive 30-40 minutes away, or even further, for quality food,” he says. Once they’re in an urban area, they look for walkable services and retail. That’s why half of the Northside Marketplace is devoted to social lounge. The Marketplace has a relaxing, coffee shop atmosphere during the day and buzzes with nightlife energy (and free-flowing drinks) in the evenings. As for quality food and beverages, the Marketplace has it in spades, starting with coffee at Sure House Roasting Co., local beers and bites at Local Brew, and wine, champagne, meats, and cheeses at Belle Vie.
Business Options for Busy Entrepreneurs
The idea for the Marketplace came into being when Testa noticed that local food purveyors and artisans — busy with family obligations, limited schedules, day jobs, and financial need — were often forced to run their businesses out of their guest bedrooms in their spare time. These limitations of daily life formed the basis of the idea for a marketplace format, where local vendors’ specialty items could be sold in one collective space even when the owners are at their 9-to-5s or driving kids to soccer practice.
Travis Howe of Fat T’s Cookies, sold in the Marketplace’s Made in Akron food section, says that this flexibility allowed his business to become a reality: “The central checkout allows me to ‘be there’ without having to actually ‘be there’ in order to sell. Being a baker, this is a HUGE plus.”
The biggest benefit of Northside Marketplace, both its developers and vendors say, is the community and guidance it provides to businesses who need a leg up. The Marketplace serves as a breeding ground for businesses just starting out and a permanent home for those who want it, in addition to providing opportunities for mentorship from established business leaders.
Marketplace Fosters Relationships Between Business Owners and Customers
The community aspect of the Northside Marketplace is key to attracting and retaining local talent, as makers, movers, and changers set down roots while their businesses take flight right here in Akron. “The goal,” says Testa, “is to make you fall in love before you leave, plant roots, get involved, so it’s more difficult to just uproot yourself and go. That culture of community goes way beyond the business. It’s about businesses becoming friends with one another, which helps commit people to the neighborhood.”
The social lounge serves as a site of incubation and a destination for special events in addition to an old-fashioned hangout spot, and offers a chance for businesses to be inspired by each other or even collaborate. Liksha Nicolia of healthy quality loose-leaf tea-sellers, 2 Daughters Tea Company, in residence at the Marketplace, raves, “It has been the vendors that make the Northside Marketplace. There is so much talent!”
Other vendors appreciate the marketing resources that the Marketplace environment provides. A representative from the Marketplace-based Akron Creamery, purveyor of locally sourced Thailand-inspired rolled ice cream, tells me that the Marketplace has inspired more excitement than ever about shopping local in Akron: “The Marketplace offers tremendous support and mentoring that made our first business venture a reality. It was the catalyst needed to push forward to take that entrepreneurial leap and own a small business. The Marketplace has ignited a resurgence of local pride.”
Howe of Fat T’s Cookies agrees, saying that the Northside Marketplace has allowed him to “creep his way into the Akron food scene” and “increase brand recognition.” His customer base, too, has widened due to the Marketplace’s central location, and has inspired more collective confidence in the city of Akron: “From the consumer perspective, they would see all of these companies popping up in Cleveland and not realize they would be Akron based if there was the opportunity. Now that we have it, Akron has started to rally around us.”
A Vision for Akron's Future
So, building on the Marketplace’s success, what’s Testa’s vision for Akron’s future? Akron has already been pegged as a site of major growth potential by the eBay Retail Revival Program, which seeks to revitalize local businesses and has partnered with the city of Akron to create more meaningful retail experiences. Testa believes that Northside Marketplace could serve as a model for other cities looking to retain talent, grow small business, and build revenue.
In particular, he says, urban living and shopping are ways for cities to save money while turning a higher profit: “Attracting people to the downtown area cuts costs because it’s a higher-density area rather than a rural one, so fewer resources are needed to maintain it. So the question is, how do we get people to want to move into the downtown area?”
Revitalizing “main streets” and urban neighborhoods is key to that last part of the equation. The second step, says Testa, is to establish Akron as a culinary destination by encouraging investment into local bars, farm-to-table dining, and eclectic, innovative restaurateurs. He asserts, “Beyond working with the built environment and good urban planning and architecture, I think the easiest catalyst, the first domino that will entice people to live downtown, is proclaiming Akron as a culinary mecca. The big win for Akron is if we can support local bars and restaurants, which in turns boosts local retail.”
And rather than trying to beat mass distributors at their own game, Northside Marketplace vendors have succeeded by providing what no bigtime retailer can do: community, local products that you can’t find anywhere else, and the opportunity to be part of a homegrown, grassroots effort.
Akron’s Northside Marketplace is open daily and is located at 21 Furnace Street.
This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.
(All photos courtesy of Northside Marketplace)
About the author
Laura Dorwart has written for The New York Times, SheKnows, Bustle, Bitch, VICE, Catapult, McSweeney's, and HuffPost, among other outlets. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Antioch University and was a Fletcher B. Jones Dissertation Fellow at UC San Diego. She lives in Ohio. Visit her website: www.lauradorwart.com