As this article is being written, Akron, Ohio’s Main Street—a portion of which is also known as King James Way, in recognition of the city’s most famous native son—is populated with construction machinery, orange barrels, chain-link fencing and “Road Closed” signs. On weekdays, office workers taking their lunchtime walks watch construction workers bang away at the concrete with giant jackhammers. On weekends, crowds still manage to filter through the barriers to enjoy outdoor concerts and festivals at Locks 3 and 4 of the old Ohio Canal.

Behind all of the construction work is over $13 million in federal TIGER (Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery) grants, along with an additional $7.5 million in additional federal funds and $3.5 million in state funding. To get the money, the city had to ante up about $3.8 million from its General Fund and an additional $1.4 million out of a sewer replacement account.

That’s a lot of funding directed to Akron’s Main Street Corridor, just one of many renewal and construction projects that have been or are about to be started downtown. For now, while others await private financing or planning details to be wrapped up, the publicly-funded “reset” taking place on Main Street is the most visible, and perhaps the most controversial.

As Strong Towns has long argued, TIGER grants can be used or abused, depending on how truthfully towns assess their needs, and whether the dollars they invest to get the grants could be spent in better ways. Too often, the lure of big federal dollars encourages cities to undertake projects that sound good, but mostly serve to increase debt and long-term infrastructure costs. In terms of its ability to create long-term value, how does Akron’s Main Street Corridor stack up?

Downtown: Past & Present

Main Street, Akron, OH

Sixty-some years ago, slimming down Akron’s primary downtown thoroughfare to one lane in each direction would have been unthinkable in a busy, car-loving city where parking was at a premium. With one of the widest Main Streets in America (the Ohio & Pennsylvania Canal once went down the middle of the street) the city needed all of it to get its peak 1960 population of almost 300,000 in and out of its primary retail and business destination.

Over the past thirty years, the city’s downtown has faded to a vestige of its former self. Some major entities, like a large regional utility, bank offices, a law firm and County government remained as primary anchors. Other attractions, like Canal Park Stadium, the expanded Public Library, Lock 3 Park and the historic Civic Theatre, have kept bringing people downtown, but mostly on an irregular or seasonal basis. Long gone are the days of traffic jams or having to dodge people while walking down the sidewalk at lunch hour. By 2010, Akron had lost about 1/3 of its 1960 population—and nowhere reflected this like the city’s Main Street.

While the city had tweaked sections of Main Street over the past few decades, change really began to take shape in 2016, when the city obtained the first of two TIGER Grants that would be used to rethink and redesign Main Street, south of State Street to Cedar. As a second TIGER grant was awarded in 2018 and the improvements have been extended north on Main Street, the overall vision and scope of the project is becoming clearer to people who work in downtown Akron, as well as many people who may be considering making it their home. Leaders of the project, who originally referred to it as the Main Street Promenade, have let that fancy moniker fade (not surprising for a traditionally blue-collar town) and now mostly refer to it as the Main Street Corridor Project.

“This project is going to modernize and beautify Main Street and transform the downtown experience,” Mayor Dan Horrigan explained. “Our goals with this project are to improve the traffic flow for motorists, update our traffic signals, leverage technology in an efficient way and make Main Street more welcoming and accessible for pedestrians and bicyclists.”

Earlier this year, Strong Towns’ Chuck Marohn wrote an article about 5 Community-Building Values that would be good to consider when planning new projects or taking action to make communities stronger and more resilient. They provide a good platform for reviewing Akron’s Main Street Corridor Project, and how it supports those goals.

1. Does the city have the money to build and maintain the project?

The initial answer here would seem to be yes—since most of the Main Street Corridor project is funded through federal TIGER grants, state grants, and associated costs borne by local utilities. Out of a total project cost of over $31 million (at least $7.5 million is for the replacement of the State Street Bridge, which connects to Main Street) the city’s share is somewhere between $3.8 and $5.3 million.

That’s a significant amount of money for a city whose budget has been under significant stress over the past several years, much of it due to an EPA-mandated overhaul of the sewer system. Passage of a tax levy in 2017 helped ease financial pressures, but the city’s administration must still monitor its spending carefully. One might legitimately ask whether many of the aims of the Corridor Project might have been achieved using smaller, more incremental steps to encourage downtown renewal, in contrast to the chosen approach, which involves major disruption and significant expenditure. The city would argue that getting all the work done at once is worth it, but there are risks involved—especially if the other private development projects don’t go as planned.

"Ambassadors" from the Downtown Akron Partnership help with street maintenance.

One important question concerns the city’s ability to pay for the ongoing maintenance required for the new improvements. Assuming all the plans for expansion of residential and retail development downtown are successful (a necessary assumption I’ll return to a bit later) the costs would seem to be sustainable. City services are already supplied to the downtown area, and much of the infrastructure is already in place. This project, in replacing space for cars with space for people, will not create significant new infrastructure liabilities beyond what already exists. Another plus in the project’s column is that the downtown tax base is on track to grow significantly. It should also be noted that the Downtown Akron Partnership, whose members contribute to a fund for street improvements, services and programming, also helps maintain the area—and should also see their membership grow over the next few years.

A more difficult question to answer is whether the project will generate enough new local revenue to recoup the city’s investment. This question may never have a conclusive answer, since the promise of an effort like this lies in anticipated spillover benefits—a revitalized downtown with an increased tax base—that are impossible to attribute definitively to a single cause.

However, certain ballpark calculations can shed light on it. About half of Akron’s locally generated tax revenue comes from the city’s 2% income tax, which brought in $128.43 million in 2017. Suppose half of the city’s share of the project costs were to be similarly recouped in increased income tax receipts over ten years—about $250,000 per year. That would require an increase of 0.2% in the city’s annual income tax revenue.

There are an estimated 140,000 jobs in Akron, according to the “Build in Akron” report released in 2017 by the Greater Ohio Policy Center. A 0.2% increase would amount to roughly 280 jobs. Will the Main Street redesign result in 280 jobs above and beyond what would have been created without it? If this project proves to be the spark for a broad downtown renaissance, it’s possible. But it’s far from a done deal.

Or take property tax receipts and apply a similar analysis. Akron collected about 10% of its general fund from property taxes in 2017, a total of $17 million. What would it take to collect 10% of the Main Street project cost in ten years’ worth of increased property taxes? The answer, at current tax rates, is $6 to $8 million in increased property value directly attributable to this project—that is, above and beyond what would have happened anyway. Out of the question for downtown Akron? Not in the event of a dramatic revitalization. But it’s clear that the city is gambling on this project being the catalyst for exactly such a revitalization.

It would be an unreasonable standard to insist that every capital project the City of Akron embarks upon produce demonstrable revenues exceeding the costs of the project. A revitalized Main Street may well have social benefits that far exceed the direct financial return on investment. However, it’s also true that if the city’s expenses never produced a real, financial return to the public coffers, the city would eventually go broke.

Can Akron afford to do one Main Street Corridor project? Yes. In the best-case scenario, the Main Street redesign sparks an explosion of private wealth and population growth in downtown Akron. In the worst-case scenario, the city is out $5.2 million—not the end of the world in an annual budget of 100 times that.

But could it afford to do things of this scale again and again? Probably not. The allure of “free money” from the federal government is strong—and it may well be true that these TIGER grants represented a “use it or lose it” opportunity for Akron. But a gamble of this nature cannot be the key to enduring revitalization. Once the federal grants have been spent, the city of Akron will be left to make smart local investments in the city that pay for themselves, generating the wealth to fund the next generation of investments, and then the next, year after year. Shooting for transformative change can work once or twice, but it’s not a repeatable or scalable strategy.

Given that Akron has committed to the Main Street project, what can it do now to leverage the money it’s spending? What else has to happen for the city to get “bang for its buck”?

2. Could smaller, incremental changes benefit downtown?

Akron's Cascade Plaza becomes the setting for an outdoor fashion show.

In a project like Akron’s Main Street Corridor, the most visible elements—like the redesigned roadway, sidewalks, protected bikeways and intersections—get all the attention. But there are some modest ideas that can enhance the overall effect and help the project meet its goal of beautifying and improving the downtown environment. Some of these start with simple ideas involving the ways that spaces on Main Street are used. This summer, parks like Lock 3 and open spaces like Cascade Plaza have brought hundreds of people downtown for outdoor yoga and exercise classes. Small bicycle repair stations reinforce the fact that the city is working to make the downtown area more cyclist-friendly. Weekly food-truck gatherings at Cascade also pull office workers out of their cubicles to take in outdoor activities.

While none of these activities directly impact the physical environment on Main Street or influence Corridor Project planning, they make incremental changes to the ways people think about and utilize downtown, and that’s an important start. The Main Street Corridor project won’t attract more people to downtown by itself; that’s not what it was designed to do. It was designed to enhance the streetscape in a way that might benefit the other residential, commercial, cultural and recreational assets—both those that are existing and those in development.

Small, low-risk "prototyping" experiments explore how Main Street can be used as public space and not just a transportation thoroughfare.

It’s also important to remember that the process of testing, observing and “seeing what works” has been an ongoing process on Main Street for decades. From the happy accident of Lock 3’s success, measuring response to downtown event programming and monitoring “test” environments like the Northside District and the Arts District at Main and Market Streets, everyone who has a stake in downtown has been watching to see what might be worth investing in. The Corridor Project could be described as a fair consensus about many of those ideas.

Akron is also lucky to have had Knight Foundation grants available to fund a wide range of small-scale downtown projects—from pop-up parks and art installations to event programming. This has also gone a long way to solidifying public opinion and helping build consensus about what Downtown can become.

3. Is the Main Street Corridor project a response to recognized local needs?

Akronites celebrate New Year's Eve at Lock 3.

It’s often the case that financial incentives like federal TIGER grants can create an artificial need for projects that the public never requested. But for anyone who remembers the city’s once-thriving downtown, the need to re-imagine Akron’s Main Street has long been recognized. The pockets of commercial success that do exist—around the baseball stadium and Lock 3, at the south end of downtown, and in the historic district at Main and Market Streets—make it clear that the Corridor project could be a critical component in connecting them together. In larger cities, these destinations might seem more distinct and separate, but as Akron’s downtown is relatively narrow and compact (a little over a mile long and less than a half-mile wide) it’s not hard to see downtown as a diverse whole, with Main Street as it’s essential backbone; thus the focus on getting the most out of this central corridor.

As these areas have seen success, there has been a steadily growing interest in living downtown, and local developers have responded with several major projects slated to begin on Main Street this year, converting former office buildings to over 300 apartments and thousands of square feet of ground-level retail and mixed-use space. Downtown event programming has also expanded significantly over the past two years, as the community continues to recognize the area as a symbol of local renewal. The Main Street Corridor, with its improvements in pedestrian access, support of multi-modal transportation and parking, is expected by those who have a stake in the future of downtown Akron to be the thread that ties all these projects to one another.

A resident shares his vision for downtown Akron at a public meeting about plans for the area.

The city has also reached out to the community for input into the project, and this has included open meetings and discussions on further long-term planning for the whole downtown area. Both the city and DAP have initiated surveys and other activities to help determine citizen priorities for street design, activity programming and other perceived needs.

Still, it’s not unusual to hear some people ask—“who’s going to want to live downtown?” or “Why are they installing a roundabout at that intersection?”  Usually, those doing the questioning have not kept up to date on the planning behind the project, or—once they heard that federal and state governments are funding the lion’s share—don’t seem quite so concerned. The fact that the city, through the Knight Foundation, has been paying more recent attention to neighborhoods also tends to dull any inherent criticism.

4. Is the overall project adaptable? What if things change?

One look at the plan renderings for the finished Corridor project and it is clear that Main Street will both look and work differently than it does now. Yet anyone who’s been employed downtown for any length of time would tell you that the new arrangement will easily handle current Main Street traffic levels (which are extremely modest, to say the least) and would still suffice should the area see significant residential and commercial renewal. Even if that major renewal never materialized, the street would still look better, and function far better than it does today—serving as a safer, more attractive and more flexible connector between its public, private, residential and commercial spaces.

Which brings us to the more serious question: what if things don’t change? For the project to be truly deemed successful, it must help frame and showcase the ongoing transformation of downtown—a major endeavor with lots of parts and pieces—including apartments, a hotel, more retail and new office and entertainment space scattered across many blocks. That’s a lot of things that have to go right; the Main Street Corridor project is just one of them.

For its part, the city is fully committed to making all these projects happen, devoting significant time and effort to assist developers with planning, design and even in the search for financing. In the end, it will all serve to answer the biggest question of all: Do people really want to live downtown? And if so—will new business follow?

5. Will the project support human-scaled activities and enhance property values?

Public events making use of underutilized space can activate downtown streets.

This is the central focus of the Main Street Corridor project, which was created to enhance access to the area, provide a safer and more attractive pedestrian environment, support various types of transportation—including bicycles, buses and automobiles, and support a stronger and more vibrant community along downtown’s major thoroughfare. It reduces the automobile’s former hegemony over the street to a level that’s appropriate for today’s traffic levels, and provides more space for people, activities and even public art.

“Residents, businesses and visitors will benefit from this investment to create an excellent public space for Akron's people," said Suzie Graham, President and CEO, Downtown Akron Partnership.

Will the result be perfect? Nothing ever is; one can easily expect things might be further tweaked and adjusted over the coming years as the future of downtown Akron takes shape.

The Main Street Corridor Project is best understood as a beginning, not an end. $20 million in federal funds and $5 million in local funds are a significant bet to place on downtown’s rebirth, and time will tell whether they were a good bet. Given the choice to “use it or lose it” with regard to the available TIGER funds, Akron chose to “use it.” Now, it’s Akron’s job to look for the smallest, highest-returning local investments it can make—many of them, little by little, over the coming years—to get the greatest benefit out of this one-time bet.

(All photos from AkronStock.com and used with permission.)