From BFD we learn why that three Northeast Ohio cities (Cleveland, Canton and Youngstown) and four of the Big Eight (add Dayton) are in Forbes' list of the fastest dying American cities. Setting aside some questions about Forbes' methods or characterization, the list -- and Akron's absence -- is yet another measure of Akron's relative prosperity in a generally depressed region.
Ed Morrison at BFD asks rhetorically what Akron is doing right. John Ettore and Bill Callahan have a good discussion in comments that hits on most of the reasons -- at least those anyone can put a finger on.
Lets start off with what is not the reason. It's certainly nothing to do with a special can-do spirit among Akronites. Talk to folks around here or peruse the comments at Ohiodotcom or listen to a political campaign and you would swear this is the land God gave to Cain. I attribute this in part to a longstanding inferiority complex vis-a-vis Cleveland and in part to the fatalism embedded in Appalachian culture which continues to influence the area long after folks have stoppped coming up from the hollers.
So here's my assessment of what the area has done right, in no particular order. I'm happy to entertain additions and corrections in comments.
First off, seven factors reflecting actual choices made by community leaders:
- A Generally Competent and Functional City Government. Mayor-for-life Don Plusquellec could have been an overbearing tin-pot dictator presiding over a hopelessly corrupt administration. Instead he has been an overbearing tin-pot dictator running a remarkable efficient administration. One example -- Plusquellec spotted the urban budget crunch on the horizon in the late nineties, before any other big city administration in the area did. He kept spending in line and Akron has thus far remained fairly solvent.
- A Generally Competent and Functional County Government. Summit County is the only major county to adopt the charter form of government provided as an option by state law. We have a County Council that provides a measure of representative government to outlying communities and a separate elected executive which provides a level of separation of powers. Any county with a major city will suffer divisions as the suburbs and exurbs resent the 800 pound gorilla. We get plenty of that, but it isn't as bad as some places because county government isn't simply a rubber stamp for the gorilla.
- The Best Urban School System in the State. APS has its challenges, but does urban education as well as anyone in Ohio. The Ellet and Firestone clusters help keep taxpayers living in the city. Boutique schools like Miller South and (soon) the Inventure Place sci/tech school enhance the revenue stream by bringing students in from out of district. APS has also put special programs like Project GRAD into the most challenging schools with some results.
- Development Efforts Have Been Targetted. Aside from the proposed Bass Pro development that ran aground, Akron and Summit generally haven't fallen for the chimera of retail development a la Steelyard Commons. Instead, development efforts have kept employers that provide high-wage jobs with plenty of spillover -- Goodyear world HQ, the Bridgestone research center and Roetzel and Andress's development of the O'Neil's building are prime examples, all using credits and abatements (and in some cases giveaways) to keep high value employers here.
- The U. When I didn't go to Akron U in the Eighties it was a lot like Cleveland State -- an urban commuter school. A succession of Presidents, in cooperation with the city and others -- have transformed it into a real campus. They added an Honors program to attract well-credentialed students and opened or improved on a number of what are now called "centers of excellence." Polymer is the most obvious example, as are two that your humble blogger has direct ties two -- the law school and the Bliss Institute.
- The U, Part II: The Research. U Akron didn't just improve academics, the university also built its research side. And it didn't simply build capacity for basic research, it also leads state universities in translating that research into economic applications. Coming back from Colorado my seat mate was an entrepreneur who started MemPro -- a company that basically buys technology form UA and develops it for commercial application. He has no ties to the area but set up his manufacturing and development operations here because that's where the company's basic research happens.
- Downtown: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. What happens downtown matters. Akron has been blessed with developers who see the value in reusing or repurposing existing buildings. Yr. Humble Blogger is connected with many of them -- Tony Troppe of Historic District fame was a dorm mate in college, I once worked for Paul Perantinides who extended downtown a block north with Courtyard Square and Micheal Owen of Northside and AES fame is a family friend. In addition to private redevelopment, Akron has done some smart shrinking, most notably the Lock 3 project which leveled a block of empty storefronts to create a green public space. As a result, Akron's downtown looks clean, safe and prosperous relative to our NEO neighbors with relatively few of the derelict buildings that make a downtown look like a place to avoid.
- The Difference Between Factories and Business HQs. Akron didn't just have rubber factories, but was home city to an worldwide industry. As a result, even when the factories closed, a number of high-paying jobs in management and research stayed. In addition, the tire industry happens to be particularly research intensive. State Sen. Tom Sawyer brags that our humble tire is in fact one of the most intesively engineered products anywhere. Back when the tire industry sprung up here, no one knew that it would spin off cutting edge materials research, but Akron survives because it did.
- Akron Started Losing Early. Akron began hemorhaging tire factory jobs before Cleveland started losing auto manufacturing and Canton's steel mills started to close. Back when MTB was covering the Ohio 13th primary Scott Bakalar remarked that Akron is a 21st Century city, while Lorain is still thinking 1980s.
- Akron Has a Stronger Residential Base. The conventional wisdom among urban historians is that Cleveland is one of the more unlucky cities in the U.S. in that it became landlocked relatively early in its development. Unlike many major cities, Cleveland's wealthiest neighborhoods didn't develop a large wealthy section within its city limits. Instead, Shaker Heights, Beechwood and so forth incorporated before they could be annexed. Think of Chicago without the Gold Coast, Manhatten without the Upper East Side or San Francisco without The Avenues and you get Cleveland.
Thought it's premature* start talking about Akron+.
*Corrected on edit.