Farmer’s markets are usually places where farmers, brewers, and artisans congregate to sell their products. "Buy locally" has been the rallying cry of environmentalists and philanthropists everywhere. But in Middlebury, a neighborhood nestled in the heart of Akron, Ohio, coming together for the first ever Middlebury Wednesday served an even higher purpose.
Hopes and dreams written on paper and tacked to wooden pallets greeted visitors at the Hapi Fresh Farmer’s Market in downtown Akron behind The Well Community Development Corporation on East Market Street. Residents of Akron’s Middlebury area had weighed in on their visions for their neighborhood. Wishes ranged from “Be nicer so I can go outside to play” to “An Akron destination where prosperity is shared for all residents, current and future.” Better jobs, residential rehab, and more small businesses also made the list. The market, sponsored by Asia Inc. (Asian Services in Action) brought together all members of the community for an evening of gourmet fare, great music, and an opportunity to engage in hopeful dialogue about the future of the city.
Andrew Overbeck from MKSK, the company that recently drew up Akron’s downtown vision and development plan, was on hand, enjoying arepas from The Square Scullery, Akron’s beloved famous food truck. He had just come from a historical tour of the neighborhood, one that highlighted reminders of the region’s glory days as a prosperous hub of businesses. Among the properties featured on the tour was Robinson Mansion, home of Byron Robinson, who made his fortune from the clay to be found in the region. Andrew and other members of the MKSK team listened eagerly to the residents’ desires.
“The city has some really good talent in place,” Andrew said. He went on to express optimism in the implementation of Akron’s vision plan, noting that “Almost every idea we’ve had has been tied to a funding source.” Dreams without financial support remain just that—dreams. With funding in place, the city’s revitalization plan is on target to unfold. MKSK developed a ten-point plan for Akron’s growth and development. Points nine and ten seem to best fit Middlebury: “Build on Akron’s rich history,” and “Strengthen downtown connections with surrounding neighborhoods and institutions.”
Juliana Silveira of MKSK gathered emails and comments from the community near the table with the wish lists. She handed out business cards urging guests to “Join the Conversation” and weigh in with their feedback at thewell.akron.com/neighborhood-planning. Perhaps the most important part of MKSK’s plan is its inclusion of residents as vital contributors whose input can help maximize the plan's benefits to the city.
Though the farmer’s market was slated to run from 4-7, executive director of The Well Zac Kohl was pleased to see that even with the last minutes drawing near, residents were in no hurry to leave. They enjoyed crispy kale chips and raspberry lemonade from Miss Julie’s Kitchen and the Square Scullery’s fried Brussels sprouts with ancho chili aioli, and pork belly mac 'n' cheese. Akron’s R Shea Brewing Company, launched in 2015, served up adult beverages.
Visitors could see the greenhouse and garden plots newly started where residents could ask for some space and tend and cultivate it as they pleased. The Well had also erected a large pergola where food trucks could park and neighbors could gather to sample their offerings. The greenhouse had just been finished in May making this the first year for the community garden. Next year, it’s hoped that the project will engage even more members of the neighborhood as planting will be able to begin earlier in the spring.
Members of The Well’s team mingled among the guests. Curtis Minter, an Akron native and current operations director for the organization, chatted animatedly with Randi Hodge, founder of Goods, an online purveyor of natural hair and skin products. Curtis had spent several years in Colorado learning about non-profits. He brought that knowledge home with him to Akron, where he had once been a classmate of Zac’s at Case Elementary School. He confessed that he wanted a brick from the old school before it was replaced with the sleek new building that will open this school year to a new generation of Akronites.
“I made him come back,” Randi said with a grin.
Curtis said his wish for the neighborhood is that eventually, The Well would cease to exist—that it would no longer have a need to serve. “That’s every non-profit’s goal—to no longer be needed.”
But to no longer be needed, financial gains in the form of small businesses and job opportunities must happen. Randi’s own company had enjoyed its launch at Compass Coffee directly behind The Well on East Market Street. Brick and mortar stores and online venues such as Randi’s can help Akron neighborhoods gain traction.
Staffing a table of Compass Coffee products, natural peanut butter, and honey, Kelly McHood, The Well’s Office and Fund Development officer, says she was easily recruited by Zac for involvement with the community. Listening to him talk about the importance of supporting place and bringing home ownership back to the community, she says, “brought us to tears.” His passion and commitment to Middlebury, a place where he has chosen to raise his own three sons, are contagious. Kelly’s own commitment to serving her community is strong.
Near Kelly’s table, J.J. the musician sang and played guitar while neighbors drifted in to dine, chat, and soak up the atmosphere on the warm July evening. Middlebury Wednesdays will run every two weeks in the summer, with the next scheduled on July 25th. Different food trucks, musicians, and breweries will cater to visitors, who can also duck inside Compass Coffee for hot or cold beverages. It’s an easy stop on the way home from work in the city. To visit the Hapi Fresh Farmer’s Market behind The Well at this stage is to see the beginning of a journey. Seeds have been planted—ideas to draw in more residents, more businesses, and to nurture a return to prosperity for the neighborhood.
This essay is part of an ongoing engagement with Akron, Ohio, supported by the Knight Foundation. Learn more about it here.