This is Akron: Hopeful Signs Emerging in Akron's Economy
Marlene Denholm and Brooke Kennamore get a firsthand look at ongoing Akron economic development.
That’s because they have a true front-row seat to the changes taking place in their part of the city’s Firestone Park neighborhood.
Denholm owns the Main Street Saloon on South Main Street, where she and Brooke, her 22-year-old daughter, assist in the kitchen, serve customers, tend bar and do other jobs alongside each other.
The long-established bar and grill, known for its expansive menu that includes the “Jumbo Burger” as well as customer motorcycles parked out front, sits between the new Bridgestone Technical Center to the south and the under-development Firestone Business Park — the former Firestone corporate headquarters — to the north.
When factories in the area were running at capacity decades ago, the Main Street Saloon got a lot of workers as customers, Denholm recalled. “It was a good thing for us.”
That era has largely ended, Kennamore noted. Still, she’s optimistic about the changes she’s seeing.
“I think we’re on the right track but I think the economic development has been very slow,” Kennamore said. “We’re coming up. We’re not on a fast, high rise. It’s a very slow and steady Akron winning the race here. We’re the turtles.”
There definitely is movement in Akron.
The visual evidence is in the large amount of construction -- roadwork, infrastructure and buildings -- in and around the city. Supporting that, economic data point to progress, albeit uneven in spots.
There remain significant challenges. Among them: reducing the city’s high poverty rate, including all of the city population in economic opportunity and increasing largely stagnant wages.
Those economic development issues and more promise to be key parts of discussions in upcoming city elections.
Akron's ups and downs
Akron has posted stronger-than-average growth compared to other large Ohio cities, especially in startups less than five years old, according to The Fund for Our Economic Future. But as unemployment falls, wages have not gone up. Only 58 percent of Akron households can afford the bare necessities of life, said Janine Spadafore Kaiser, director of job preparation at the Fund, referencing a financial indicator tracked by United Way of Summit County.
“This is not just an Akron problem, this is a problem across Ohio and something we need to drive,” Kaiser said.
The city has fewer people employed on average now than it had in 2000. Akron also has not recovered all of the jobs it lost since the end of the Great Recession.
Akron averaged 100,400 employed people in 2000, with the figure peaking at 101,400 in 2007, the start of the Great Recession. That annual average plunged to a low of 83,200 in 2013 and gradually rose to 85,700 in 2018.
Related to that, the city’s civilian labor force has shrunk from a peak average of 108,100 in 2008 to an average of 90,500 last year, state figures show.
Akron income tax collection data reviewed by the Beacon Journal/Ohio.com also shows the city has yet to recover financially from the Great Recession. In 2016, Akron collected the equivalent of nearly $7.2 million less in income taxes than it did in 2007.
Still, a Beacon Journal analysis of census data shows that Akron has done better than all large cities in Ohio except Columbus since the Great Recession at reducing the poverty rate, improving employment rates for blacks as well as whites, and in avoiding steep population losses.
One economic indicator, commercial permits, is another bright spot for the city.
Permitting activity is up sharply over the last several years, which should bode well for future job and population growth. The 606 permits issued in 2014 totaled $156.1 million. Permit levels dropped to 510 in 2015 but have risen steadily in subsequent years to 555 with a value of $294.2 million in 2018.
The permitting activity measures such things as the major additions being built by Akron Children’s Hospital and Summa Health, as well as the long-delayed and now underway $42 million Bowery live-work-play redevelopment in the heart of downtown next to the Akron Civic Theater.
“The impossible project is now happening,” James Hardy, Akron deputy mayor and Mayor Dan Horrigan’s chief of staff, said of the Bowery redevelopment. It removes a psychological barrier as a prominent row of empty, blighted buildings gets new life and is repurposed, he said.
Developer Tony Troppe is finishing work on the nearby 71-room Blu-tique Hotel at Main and Market streets, a project intended to complement his other nearby properties.
Hardy also pointed to the redevelopment of the former Goodyear headquarters into offices, apartments and entertainment into what is called the East End and the nearby building of Goodyear’s new global headquarters, projects that he credited to former Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic. Other work is also underway elsewhere in the Middlebury neighborhood, he said.
In addition, the CitiCenter, former Holiday Inn, Law Building and First National Tower where Huntington Bank is situated in downtown are under development or soon will be, Hardy said.
“I think it’s all about not losing momentum,” he said. “In two years, downtown will look and feel different.”
Public officials are discussing such things as whether downtown Akron needs its own community development corporation, or CDC, that other Akron neighborhoods have and use as an economic development tool, Hardy said.
Investing in redevelopment
The fate of entire regions rest in the economic hearts of shrinking Midwestern cities like Akron, said Brad Whitehead, president of The Fund for Our Economic Future.
“You look ahead and think about future sources of competitiveness and where the talent will come from for companies to grow and we’re very much looking at vibrant urban cores as integral to that equation for growth,” Whitehead said. “It doesn’t matter whether your sitting in Hudson, Stow, Green or wherever; You need Akron to thrive.”
The Fund, based in Cleveland, connects businesses and philanthropic organizations to advance Northeast Ohio’s economy with a focus on entrepreneurship and firms that make and export goods or services.
The Fund's Kaiser said past state and federal funding has pushed economic development in greenfield, or undeveloped, commercial areas. There’s little of that left in post-industrial Akron, where commercial land is overwhelmingly brownfield or previously developed, holdovers from when Akron earned the nickname Rubber Capital of the World. It was when tire companies ruled and employed tens of thousands in city factories in a bygone era.
So, there’s strong interest in the creation of Opportunity Zones from the federal Tax Cuts and Jobs Act that allows for targeted investments in low-income areas. Investors who develop in the qualifying low-income areas can defer capital gains on their projects for most of the next decade.
Local leaders are seizing the opportunity to reinvent old industrial or commercial parks, like Rolling Acres Mall, which could be the site of 500 blue-collar Amazon distribution center jobs by 2020, and the Firestone Business Park. City leaders are also wondering what to about the heavily distressed Chapel Hill Mall.
“What’s great about the Akron approach is that they are focused on building up job hubs where there is existing employment to improve the proximity of jobs over time,” Kaiser said.
Revitalization efforts underway
In Firestone Park, the $100 million Bridgestone Technical Center, which opened in 2012 at South Main Street and East Firestone Boulevard, was built through a public-private partnership, in part to be a key driver in the neighborhood’s growth.
A mile away, the Firestone Business Park, a project overseen by the city in conjunction with the county, Greater Akron Chamber and APV Engineered Coatings, has one building occupied by Summit County government. The county will soon start building a maintenance building and offices on the 20-plus acre property.
Grand plans are to soon start filling out the rest of the vast space and outlying lots, plus support related development in conjunction with David Venarge, owner of nearby APV Engineered Coatings, Akron’s second-oldest business that was founded in 1878.
In 1982, Venarge bought the former Akron Paint & Varnish Inc. and renamed it APV Engineered Coatings. Now he’s working with the city and county to help develop the Firestone Business Park and nearby properties.
“I grew up in this neighborhood,” Venarge said. “It was vibrant when I was a child.”
But the changes in Akron’s economy over the decades took a toll, he said.
“We used to have restaurants,” Venarge said. “It’s a food desert now.”
The Main Street Saloon and Ido Bar & Grill, plus perhaps a couple of others along a long stretch of South Main Street, are the only food places there to service nearby businesses and residents, he said. He said he’d like to see new fast-food restaurants open, including a Taco Bell.
Venarge said the city and county are working well with private businesses such as his to help redevelop and revitalize the neighborhood and new business park.
“We’re not looking for a sexy business park,” he said. “We’re looking for an industrial park that has jobs. And not minimum-wage jobs but jobs that can support a family.”
Main Street is such an important north-south corridor for Akron that it needs to be cleaned up, dressed up and improved, he said.
Tom Venarge, David’s son and president of APV, said the ongoing redevelopment is a “highly collaborative effort” that involves regular meetings and phone calls with public officials and private companies.
“We don’t have a lot to gain in terms of customers,” with the Firestone Business Park development, Tom Venarge said. “We’re interested in bringing more bodies to the neighborhood.”
At the Main Street Saloon, Brooke Kennamore said she thinks Akron has an opportunity to become a destination place similar to Cleveland.
Kennamore said she, her mom and her grandmother, who also is a partner in the business, continue to put money into the Main Street Saloon for regular upkeep and to freshen things.
“I think 10 years from now we’re still going to be here, and I think we may have a lot more going on around us, too,” Kennamore said.