Mark Schweitzer is an Akron-based writer sharing today's guest article about what to do when your city feels pulled in many directions in its quest to grow stronger.
In some ways, Akron. Ohio is like Rip Van Winkle, who — having slumbered quietly for many years — has suddenly awakened, and — having rubbed the sleep out of its eyes — is now getting adjusted to the bright sunlight. Time to get to work.
Over the past two years, a new city administration has been busy sorting new ideas, rediscovering potential and working through a long to-do list that stretches all across the city. Much of the impetus for these efforts rests in the fact that Akron is playing “catch up” in many areas, and has just recently begun to adopt best urban planning practices, promote street-level economic development and focusing on the needs of individual neighborhoods. With dozens of new leaders emerging across the city’s 26 neighborhoods, it represents a daunting task.
The Big and Small Balancing Act
In a recent trip to Akron, Strong Towns’ Chuck Marohn noted the difficulty that exists as the city tries to navigate its way through so many small and large-scale initiatives. In dealing with a wide array of funding sources, development organizations and constituent groups, it can be easy to lose focus as priorities and resources get pulled in so many different directions.
“Big plans are important, but so are little plans,” Akron Planning Director Jason Segedy has said. “Because they often involve fundamentals, they are easier to pull off and more readily establish trust, inspire hope and build relationships.”
But getting those little plans across the finish line is not always as easy as it seems. In some cases, the intent to get positive things done clashes with the more traditional, top-down approach that characterized the city’s way of doing business for so many years. The new attitude is there, but change doesn’t always come overnight.
On the other side are dozens of neighborhood organizations, ranging from established Community Development Corporations (CDCs) to smaller associations, homeowner’s groups and many others, both formal and informal. Neighborhood organizers across Akron are thrilled that the city is ready to offer help.
“We're out here and we're inventing something and we're doing it with volunteers and people power," says Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance Director Tina Boyes. "To see the support coming from the city is huge.”
Yet it still seems that some things are lost in translation. During Chuck Marohn’s visit to Akron, some neighborhood leaders expressed that they sometimes felt overwhelmed by all the new programs and initiatives. They hoped that the city’s new development model would be shaped more by “bottom-up” listening and planning, rather than “top-down” directives. Part of the issue seems to be that while there are dozens more programs taking place, the city has far fewer resources and staff available to help move them forward. In addition, few of the staff have significant experience working with CDCs, so the habit of leaning on them as a resource and asset is something that must be learned.
“There's a tremendous amount of grassroots community visioning, planning and execution that's being done by people who have a passion for the communities they're in and who are trained in community development,” says Rev. Ron Schultz, who works closely with the Middlebury neighborhood’s WELL CDC. “With dwindling financial resources, the City would be best served by harnessing those resources and working more closely with them, on a deeper level.”
Many community leaders noted that they didn’t hear about some new programs until they read about them in the newspaper, or promoted on Facebook or Twitter. While they were happy that community input was being sought, some of the methods used could be more effective.
“The city has great intentions and there’s more neighborhood-level dialogue than ever,” notes Boyes. “But we still often find ourselves using antiquated neighborhood outreach methods, like meetings at community centers where the same vocal minority shows up every time, speaking loudly.”
One thing all the community leaders agreed about is that before launching new initiatives, the city should make CDCs and neighborhood groups their first stop, to see how plans might impact individual neighborhoods — or to fine-tune how they could be implemented. It’s all part of working together to optimize outcomes.
“It can take a little while to change habits, build trust and create a sense of transparency,” explains Jonathan Morschl, of the West Hill Neighborhood Association. “I think that as we all get more ‘wins’ across the city, the old barriers will be eliminated and communication will be more open, and two-way.”
A Process of Improvement
So far, a few neighborhoods like Kenmore, North Hill and Middlebury are just beginning to see benefits based on a mosaic of public and privately funded programs. New initiatives often start with something as simple as a historic neighborhood walk — like those organized by Jane’s Walk or Akron2Akron. Later, targeted programs like Better Block spur additional interest, leading to the establishment of community development groups, which in turn obtain funding from sources like the Knight Foundation and other foundations for new neighborhood initiatives. As things move forward, the city tries to direct its resources to ensure that that those efforts are maximized. The hope is that, when everything comes together, people will see a real difference.
In terms of where to concentrate its efforts, the city seems to have taken its cue from the Knight Foundation, which targeted some neighborhoods based on need and the existence of CDCs that could utilize its funding for projects to improve the quality of life.
“These community development corporations help to address this gap, with the goal of increasing public and private investment and creating a better future for our city,” says Kyle Kutuchief, Knight Foundation program director for Akron. “There’s a lot of need in these neighborhoods.”
Funding can be used by the CDCs for any number of new projects — from purchasing and rehabbing homes, stabilizing and revitalizing small commercial districts, to general beautification projects. While the specific use of the funds is up to the individual groups, it’s inevitable that the city will become involved in most projects at one point or another. For plans to stay on track and move ahead effectively, that interface must be efficient and robust.
Improving the Process
Thankfully, there are some tools and organizing approaches that could prove to be useful as Akron moves ahead, and Strong Towns is committed to showing city and community leaders how they can use them to build stronger, more productive relationships and get more done. One of these is a tool called Scrum, which takes many forms, but is essentially a repository for good ideas, and which is added to on a regular basis.
“At Strong Towns, we use the Scrum approach on a regular basis, and it’s really helped us stay on track to get things done,” explains Rachel Quednau, Communications Director for Strong Towns. “It helps us break things down into manageable increments and lets people focus where the need is greatest.”
Rather than floundering and feeling overwhelmed by so many different ideas and areas of focus, the Scrum tool helps in three critical ways: It ensures that good ideas aren’t forgotten or dismissed, it holds people accountable to implement those good ideas, and it breaks projects down into manageable steps. With a shortage of resources, it could be a useful in helping the city and all its neighborhood groups stay on the same page and manage progress effectively.
You might think that local elected leaders — like Ward Council Representatives — have a role to play in communication and promoting neighborhood progress, but like all cities, how this plays out in Akron is a hit-or-miss proposition. While some representatives play an active and positive role assisting neighborhood groups and supporting new projects, a few are no-shows when it comes to providing aid or even demonstrating awareness of what is going on. Over time, that leadership gap can take its toll.
One new organizational initiative that might help is the transformation of a yearlong city-wide project into a permanent resource, now known as the Congress of Neighborhood Leaders. North Hill resident Tina Ughrin facilitated the initial project in 2017, which brought together over 20 neighborhood groups in a learning and engagement initiative. Funded through the Knight Foundation, the Congress brought the representatives together to discover areas where they could work toward common goals and share information.
Though the funded portion of the project came to an end last year, participants representing several Akron neighborhoods have committed to establishing the Congress on a permanent basis, creating a new structure and setting objectives that could help bridge the gap between the city and its neighborhoods. The group hopes that the Congress could become a useful information and support hub throughout the city, enhancing communication, promoting equity in resource distribution and ensuring that new groups won’t have to “reinvent the wheel” as they undertake future projects or manage organizational tasks.
“It’s a way to share best practices and ideas,” noted Morschl, who is one of the original participants now helping to build a permanent organization. Even though Akron’s neighborhoods and boundaries vary widely, they all have common goals.
“We’re all working together, and that’s a big part of working together with the city,” he added. “We all want to get more people in our neighborhoods, so let’s see how we can help each other.”
This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.
(Top photo by Tim Fitzwater via Akron Stock)
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.