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Mayor says attitude is key to Akron’s revitalization

There are many attractions in downtown Akron today, including Lock 3 Park, which is used as an outdoor amphitheater to host live music, festivals and special events, including the Akron Civic Theater and opening ceremonies for the All-American Soap Box Derby, which takes place at Derby Downs. In the winter Lock 3 Park is transformed into an ice skating rink.

Legal News Reporter

Published: May 16, 2013

When a patient is fighting to recover from an illness a positive attitude can go a long way, and Akron Mayor Donald Plusquellic believes the same is true when a city is working to revive its economy.

Once known as the “Rubber Capital of the World,” when Plusquellic took office in 1987, he said the city was in the midst of grappling with the loss of the industry that defined it.

“The polymer industry was like a seed falling off a dying tree,” said Plusquellic. “Three major rubber companies, Goodrich, Firestone and General Tire, had all left Akron within a short period of time. We had lost about 35,000 jobs, but there were similar machine skills like molding and extrusion and compounding expertise from the rubber companies that easily transferred to smaller polymer companies.”

He said the biggest obstacle he was facing was convincing the residents that Akron had what it would take to bounce back.

“I had to work diligently to explain that while the rubber companies were gone, we still had a lot of strengths because the same suppliers and service people could work with the polymer industry,” said Plusquellic. “It would take a lot of research and cooperation but it was possible.”

Despite the continuing decline in rubber jobs, Akron’s research in polymers has paid off. It is now known internationally for its polymer research, with over 400 polymer-related companies in the area and more than 90 in the city itself.

The University of Akron is home to the Goodyear Polymer Center, the National Polymer Innovation Center and the first College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering.

The city remains the global headquarters for Goodyear Tire & Rubber, which just celebrated the opening of its world-class facility on May 9.

Other notable companies headquartered in Akron include FirstEnergy Corp., GOJO Industries Inc., Advanced Elastomer Systems, FirstMerit Bank, Myers Industries, Acme Fresh Market and Sterling Jewelers. The city also has other major subsidiaries such as Lockheed Martin’s machining center, aerostat development and flight simulator operations and it is the U.S. headquarters for Meggitt Aircraft Braking Systems.

Bridgestone Americas opened a new technical center in Akron in 2012, which contains state-of-the-art research and development labs. In addition, the Eastern Ohio division of KeyBank built a regional headquarters in the downtown.

In 2006, the mayor designated an area called the Akron Biomedical Corridor aimed at attracting health-related ventures to the area. It encompasses privately- and publicly-owned land, curving around the downtown, connecting the campuses of Summa Health System, Akron General Medical Center and Akron Children’s Hospital.

Since it began, it has added companies like Akron Polymer Systems, which is headquartered in the corridor, plus several early-stage companies in the Akron Global Business Accelerator.

In 2008, The University of Akron, Summa Health System, Northeast Ohio Medical University (NEOMED), Akron Children’s Hospital and Akron General Health System joined forces to help create the Austen BioInnovation Institute. Other partners and supporters are the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, FirstEnergy, the state of Ohio, Summit County and the city of Akron.

The institute works in collaboration with BioEnterprise, the Akron Biomedical Corridor’s development initiatives, ARCHAngels and the Akron Global Business Accelerator to enhance regional biomedical commercialization efforts.

The business accelerator has played a large part in the city’s efforts to attract and launch new companies, said Plusquelic. Created in 1983 as a business incubator, it was the first such program in the state. At the time, it was located in an old former steel warehouse at the edge of The University of Akron campus. The city and Summit County were the original partners in the venture, which, he said, was designed to offset the loss of jobs in the tire industry by creating new businesses.

Within 18 months of opening, it was completely occupied with manufacturing, assembly and distribution companies. The accelerator is now located inside a building in the original B.F. Goodrich tire complex at 526 S. Main St., and, the mayor said, floors six to nine are dedicated to high-technology startup and early-stage companies in industries involved in polymer research, renewable energy, information technology and biomedical.

The Akron Global Business Accelerator is the largest one in Ohio, offering companies discounted leasing rates as well as mentoring and coaching services designed to help them bring products to the U.S. and world markets.

“Akron has always been a place of innovation,” said Robert Bowman, Akron’s deputy mayor for economic development.“We have always had the ability to reinvent ourselves. As Thomas Friedman said in his book ‘The World Is Flat,’ it is possible to find talent and technology anywhere in the world; the question is how to commercialize it. I think our incubator has been able to do a better job than most places.”

In the early ‘90s the mayor joined forces with the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce in an effort to attract international investment.

“In our first year we attended the Hannover trade fair, which is the largest manufacturing show in the world,” said Plusquellic. “There were machine companies from all over the world and the goal was to generate reverse investment. My view was that the market was becoming global whether people liked it or not and it was important for our city to capture our share of the investment, and ultimately the jobs, here in the Akron area.

“I traveled to a lot of places including Israel, where we invested $500,000 in an incubator. The good publicity we received caused companies to see Akron as a welcome place to set up their businesses.”

In 2009, the agreement between the city and Israel’s Targetech Innovation Center led two Israeli companies (Teraphysics Security Inc. and Innovative Communication Solutions) to move into the Akron Global Business Accelerator.

More recently, Rochling Automotive USA erected a $20 million facility in the Akron-owned Massillon Road industrial park in Springfield Township. The facility opened in 2012 and a second phase is underway that will double the size and increase the jobs from 60 to approximately 150 within a year.

Last February, Plusquelic said the city hosted Lithuanian representatives from a variety of institutions, which resulted in a memorandum of understanding and cooperation between Kaunas University of Technology and the Akron Global Business Accelerator to promote and develop biomedical initiatives.

The city also took part in an economic development trip to China, said Plusquelic, with the Mayors Association of Portage, Summit and Stark Counties (formerly the Summit County Mayors Association) in an effort to continue to attract Chinese investment.

The trip included business meetings in Beijing, Nanchang, Qingdao, Kunshan, Pudong, Hangzhou and the Songjiang District of Shanghai. The city of Akron already has a cooperative agreement with Qingdao and the city of Weihai.

“I have been criticized quite a lot for my international travel,” said Plusquellic. “But for every dollar I’ve spent, the city has received $8,980 in investment.”

Another important tool that has helped Akron’s economy, he said, was the creation of joint economic development districts with neighboring townships. Under the terms of a JEDD, Akron provides water and sewer and agrees to stop future annexation of land in exchange for sharing income tax revenue from the businesses that set up in the area. There are currently four in place, including Bath-Akron-Fairlawn, Copley-Akron, Coventry-Akron and Springfield-Akron, where Rochling opened.

“These agreements are beneficial to everyone since they stop the bickering and promote economic growth as business owners decide where to locate to meet their needs and we share the tax benefits,” said Plusquellic.

Officials have also worked to revitalize the downtown, implementing programs to curb panhandling and other problems and adding events to attract residents and tourists.

“When I first moved here in the late ‘80s, the downtown was pretty much vacant,” said Bowman. “We were also losing our population.”

Bowman said one of the major game changers for the downtown was the addition of the Akron Aeros minor league baseball team in 1997.

“Attracting a minor league baseball team helped generate commercial activity,” said Bowman. “When GOJO Industries and Advanced Elastomer Systems, a joint venture of Exxon and Monsanto, moved their operations downtown it transformed the downtown from rubber to polymers and that created increased demand by other companies looking to relocate.”

In 2008 InfoCision Stadium - Summa Field opened, giving the Akron Zips a brand new place to play. Bowman said the stadium together with student housing development further spurred restaurant growth and nightlife.

There are many other attractions in the downtown today, including Lock 3 Park, which is used as an outdoor amphitheater to host live music, festivals and special events, including the Akron Civic Theater and opening ceremonies for the All-American Soap Box Derby, which takes place at Derby Downs. In the winter Lock 3 Park is transformed into an ice skating rink.

Other major parks include Firestone, Goodyear Heights and the F.A. Seiberling Nature Realm. A portion of Cuyahoga Valley National Park is also in Akron and the towpath trail runs through the city.

Each year, the NEC World Series of Golf takes place at the Firestone Country Club.

Culturally the city is known for the Ohio Conservatory of Ballet, the Akron Symphony Orchestra and the Akron Art Museum as well as Stan Hywet Hall & Gardens, which is noted for its Tudor Revival-style architecture.

After losing residents for a number of years, Bowman said the population is now stable with about 200,000 people, making Akron the fifth largest city in the state.

Despite all the activity, Akron did not escape the harsh effects of the downturn.

“Beginning in 2009, income tax revenue decreased for three consecutive years,” said Diane Miller-Dawson, director of finance.

“Income tax is our largest source of revenue. It helps pay for basic city services, including police and fire costs.”

Miller-Dawson said just as the city began to see an increase in its income tax revenue, the state began cutting local government funding.

“Our first cut was in 2010,” said Miller-Dawson. “In 2013 we are now receiving half of what we did in 2010. Estate tax was also eliminated effective Dec. 31, 2012.”

As a result of reduced revenue, she said the city offered a voluntary separation plan to all full-time employees, with 123 accepting the offer. However, the city was still forced to lay off some people.

“In 2008, we had 2,214 employees,” said Miller-Dawson.“In February 2013, we had 1,725.

“We did cut back on some programs including recreation but our basic services remained intact.”

She said the city also consolidated its health department with Summit County’s. As a result of the consolidation, over 100 employees were transferred onto the county payroll, saving more than $1 million.

“The trend toward ‘right sizing’ government operations goes back to 1979,” said Miller-Dawson. “While we do plan to add 38 more firefighters and another 40 police officers, we will not be looking to go back to pre-recession staffing levels. We are carefully evaluating our staff to see what is needed.

“Our revenue is still not back to where it was in 2007 but we are getting closer to that number.”

The city also saw large numbers of foreclosures, which impacted efforts to improve many neighborhoods.

“In the past the city has gotten a bad rap for not putting enough money into the neighborhoods,” said Marco S. Sommerville, director of planning and urban development. “That is simply not true. We have been working hard to transform our neighborhoods for many years.”

Sommerville said recently the city has changed its approach.

“It used to be we would look at home ownership versus rentals and when we would pick an area, we would target the entire neighborhood, offer grants to the homeowners to fix up their properties and use some federal money to fix it up ourselves. When we were done you could tell we had been there.

“The trouble is a lot of the housing stock is old and even when it is fixed up it still looks like an old home so we decided that approach was not working. Now we are taking a ‘scattered site’ approach since a lot of the neighborhoods have homes that are to the point where they need to be torn down so new housing can go up that will attract new people to the neighborhood, and help increase our population.”

Sommerville said the recent foreclosure crisis only added to the dilapidated housing issue, as residents refinanced their homes, taking the equity out. As a result, he said there are a number of problem-areas throughout the city.

Officials have targeted five communities in particular need of help––University Park/Kenmore, North Hill/Goodyear, Ellet/Firestone, Summit Lake and West Akron––and are using the federally-funded Neighborhood Stabilization Program to purchase/rehabilitate or purchase/demolish structures in the neighborhoods. In many instances, the money is used to clean up the lots and build new housing. The city also received Moving Ohio Forward funds, which are being used to aggressively demolish dilapidated houses throughout the city.

“I would say we tore down about 600 homes in 2012 and are on track to demolish an additional 600 in 2013,” said Sommerville.

“As we move forward, the city needs to work with our partners to transform distressed areas to stable and vibrant neighborhoods. This includes the construction of new housing opportunities where they make sense, and the preservation of existing housing in neighborhoods with a strong solid home ownership.”

“My number one priority still remains providing jobs to residents,” said Plusquellic. “Tied into this goal is that of increasing the education level of our residents so that they can compete in today’s world, not yesterday’s world. This means more than a high school education.

“This is also necessary to keep companies with a trained workforce so that they stay in Akron. If we can achieve both of these goals, crime will also go down along with other social ills. It is a constant battle.”