Harlan Spector is a writer based in Northeast Ohio sharing today's guest article about how the local government in Akron is taking steps to encourage urban revitalization.
Local developer Todd Ederer steps off the sidewalk into his vacant storefront building on Kenmore Boulevard, a few miles southwest of downtown Akron. The interior is in shambles, with buckled flooring, crumbling walls and water dripping in from rain earlier in the day.
“It’s going to take some work,” he sighs.
But Ederer is feeling good about the prospects because of what he sees happening at Akron City Hall. Under Mayor Dan Horrigan, who took office in 2016, the city has taken ambitious steps to attract new urban residents and revitalize business districts like Kenmore. Ederer owns four storefront buildings on the boulevard, including one he plans to turn into a café.
Building a local economy from the bottom up — nurturing small business growth and drawing people from the suburbs — is seen as a necessary strategy for older industrial cities like Akron to prosper.
In hopes of prodding investment, the mayor in his 2018 State of the City address announced creation of the Office of Integrated Development, designed to streamline the way the city manages economic development. He also launched a “Great Streets” program to boost city neighborhood business districts. The initiative provides grants and loans to 10 neighborhoods for small-business development. The city has also pursued zoning changes to help business districts such as Kenmore Boulevard and has enacted a 15-year real estate tax abatement for new housing construction and renovations
Horrigan’s economic agenda represents a shift from former Mayor Don Plusquellic, who ran the city for nearly 30 years until 2015. After rubber manufacturing disappeared from Akron, Plusquellic made attempts to revitalize the city’s economy and save Akron from the fate of some older industrial cities in Ohio. His downtown development strategy focused on a minor league baseball park and deals with large companies such as Bridgestone Americas Inc.
A report in 2016 by the Greater Ohio Policy Center, however, found Akron experiencing a troubling decline in economic health. Neighborhoods suffer from foreclosures and population loss. The study, supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, urged the city to promote public-private investments, downtown development and expanded housing to attract new residents.
“The mayor felt very strongly we needed to get back to fundamentals,” said Jason Segedy, director of planning and urban development. “The first component is we need to get people living in the city. It creates a market for business and retail. We need to spend more bandwidth and capital to make the city more attractive to small businesses.”
The city launched a plan in 2017 to grow the population from 198,000 to 250,000 by 2050. The initiative called for residential tax abatement, converting vacant downtown office space to housing and revamping the zoning code for multi-use development such as retail and apartments. As part of the strategy, Akron is also partnering with Summit County and non-profit groups on a plan to attract new immigrants.
While those changes are happening, the city also expanded its business accelerator program and renamed it Bounce Innovation Hub. Located in a former B.F. Goodrich plant. Bounce is envisioned as a one-stop shop for entrepreneurs and startups.
Many of Horrigan’s initiatives are too new to demonstrate results, but observers say the city is making progress with a host of downtown and neighborhood development initiatives. People say city hall is listening to small businesses, neighborhood groups and outside experts.
“Mayor Horrigan has surrounded himself with people who talk about what we can do, and how we can do things differently,” said developer Joel Testa, whose company is converting a vacant 19-story downtown hotel into apartments.
The hotel project is part of a larger plan to remake downtown Akron. The administration commissioned the Downtown Akron Vision and Redevelopment Plan, a 10-year strategic plan led by the Downtown Akron Partnership to create market-rate housing and transform the core into a more walkable and vibrant destination spot.
“We’re now developing in a more organic and engaged way,” said Suzie Graham, president of the downtown partnership. “To build toward a bigger population and focus on neighborhood development as well as downtown development, you need a lot of hands contributing to the cause.”
Testa said the timing is right. “The city understands the emerging trend is walkable, multi-use urban environments,” he said. “I think you’re going to see millennials in particular migrating into downtown Akron.”
For the neighborhoods, the City Council recently approved rezoning West Hill, a budding arts district, to expand the area zoned for home-based shops. A separate rezoning in the works for Kenmore Boulevard aims to maintain the business district character of old two- and three-story buildings, built up to the sidewalk along a former streetcar line. The zoning change prohibits parking lots along the boulevard, eliminating a parking requirement for new businesses.
The proposed rezoning provides assurance that a developer can’t tear down a building and put up a fast-food outlet.
City and neighborhood leaders believe the storefront buildings are key to growing the business district and attracting investment in new apartments. Kenmore Boulevard is known as a music hub, home to a number of recording studios, the Rialto Theater and two guitar stores. But many buildings are vacant and in need of repair.
“Kenmore is our most intact, traditional neighborhood business area,” said Segedy. “There are four or five unbroken blocks of buildings built up to the sidewalk. We want to preserve how it looks and feels.”
The city still has work to do. Potholes are a major problem that can stymie development. But there is hope in the recent passage of a city income tax increase for police, fire and road improvements. Some say the city also needs more horsepower in the building department. Akron merged its department with Summit County about a decade ago. Now with construction booming, the department is overwhelmed, said developer Testa.
“There is definitely a backlog in the permitting process,” he said. “That’s been a big challenge. It takes a long time for plans to get looked at and approved.”
But overall, city hall is giving builders like Ederer hope.
“I’ve been advocating for this stuff for years and it had fallen on deaf ears,” he said.
This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.
(Top image of Kenmore Blvd from Google Maps)
About the Author
Harlan Spector is a Northeast Ohio writer and editor, and a journalism instructor at Cleveland State University. He formerly was a reporter and editor for The Cleveland Plain Dealer for more than two decades.