Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Why Isn't Akron Dying?

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
We should also acknowledge a few factors that can only be chalked up as accidents of history.
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
Looking over the list, it's far more valuable as a lesson to Akron about what works and what we should hold onto than a set of ideas that the other NEO cities could replicate. Akron has had its missteps (Inventure Place, bankrolling Brennan's hotel) and has its challenges (shrinking population, the lure of warmer climates) but we are doing far better tha anyone expected back when I left in the mid-80s. We have transformed from a rust belt manufacturing center to a university town and tech mecca.

Thought it's premature* start talking about Akron+.

*Corrected on edit.


Unknown said...

Akron has an inferiority complex with respect to Cleveland? I sure hope not, because Cleveland has a serious inferiority complex of its own. When I moved here two years ago and Clevelanders found out I came here from Chicago, five out of six immediately said 'why on earth would you do that?'

At first I laughed and reminded them of the big-city stuff Cleveland has going for it: the orchestra, art museum, theater district, some architecture, etc. But eventually I got discouraged. I was being told I'd made the wrong choice.

There's a malaise here. I hope Cleveland decides to make it work. Maybe we have to collectively decide we deserve for it to work. I don't have the solutions, but I can see there's a problem.

Village Green said...

Excellent summation, Pho! Had no idea of the fatalistic aspects of Appalachian culture, but I sure have noticed the negativity from numerous locals online and in real life. Don't they remember what downtown looked like in the mid 80s?

Now if we could only move faster on making our city greener.

Unknown said...

I think the inferiority stuff also has a lot to do with the ethnic groups in Northeast Ohio who came here to work in the mills and such and tended to be very humble. That has continued into the next couple of generations. These are good, hard-working folks, and they're the ones who helped to form these cities and their industries. But growing up in Youngstown, anytime I wanted to do something out of the norm, like study in Italy, travel to Australia or live in New York City, I was often told, "Why would you want to do that?" The idea was that you shouldn't venture out of "safe" territory. There is almost a fear of stepping outside of what you know to try to better yourself or your community.

Then when the "safe" territory falls on hard times, people immediately have a very negative sense of where they live.

Fortunately, there are folks in Akron and elsewhere who aren't afraid to move outside of the "safe" zone and try to take their communities in different directions.

Anonymous said...

Outstanding summary, Pho. As someone who works in the regional economic development world the effectiveness of Akron/Summit government is one of those items that clearly stands out when comparing with the other core cities of Northeast Ohio. Strong, long-term political leadership certainly makes a difference. Among the innovations of Plusquellic was the aggressive use of JEDDs to make sure Akron received some benefit from sprawl. Imagine if Cleveland had traded tax sharing for access to water in places like Solon.

One point I'd add to your list is geography. Northern Summit County (which is counted in the Akron MSA) is well situated to attract "exiles" from Akron and Cleveland. Suburban sprawl has been kinder to Summit than Cuyahoga, I think.

Jeff, you're dead on regarding Cleveland's inferiority complex. Clevelanders (all residents of Northeast Ohio) must stop asking people "Why on earth would you move here?" That one question tells newcomers to "leave fast."

Eric said...

akron isn't dying because it it's a republican controlled suburb unlike...no wait.

sorry. got so used to taxman saying it...

Anonymous said...

there are some really interesting comments here, particularly the observation of the correlations with Appalachian culture. Downtown Akron wasn't the best in the eighties, but it never anything on the level of what other downtown areas in the Midwest had approached, like say that of Detroit.

another thing to note is that you can continue to develop downtown Akron all you want but it still has quite a way to go to catch up to other downtown areas in other cities. for example I'm next door to Norfolk, VA, which not only has one of the best downtown areas I've seen for a city of it's size, but one of the better downtowns period. it helps that downtown Portsmouth connects to it across the water.

I could only dream of such a thing happening in Downtown Akron, but a number of things have to happen. First off the overall economic condition in Akron would have to be brought up; the city, county, or metropolitan area cannot keep loosing jobs. quite honestly, it really pisses me off to think that the only success stories in that entire region of the country seem to be Chicago, Indianapolis and Columbus, OH.

not to mention the fact that Chicago is still loosing people, mainly to Chicagoland, as most cities have lost people to suburbia, as opposed to people just leaving Illinois altogether. on the other hand people really are packing up and leaving Chicago.

so this brings me to an impasse; haven't lived in Akron since the early nineties and do I want to go back there if it's dying, and what do I do about that if it is. are those who left Akron going to go back there and rebuild the place and create new opportunities for other people are they just going to try to be successful somewhere and let other people from places like New York and Chicago set up shop?

the Midwest just seems really far and distant these days, not just literally but figuratively, so what do I do about that. I'll always have some type of connection or soul ties to Akron. As far as an inferiority complex, that's funny, because I always looked up to Cleveland and Cleveland did for a brief time, though the butt of many jokes, had some prominence as a major city. Cleveland was always the place to be.

Jeff I would have said the exact same thing, but I doubt it's totally an inferiority complex. They're looking at it like, Cleveland a city a sixth the size of Chicago. Cleveland may have 50 skyscrapers at best and Chicago has well over 1,000. That's the way they're looking at it.

About the best the Midwest can really do is to do the best that it really can with the little bit that they have. Once that is done other people will catch on and it will perpetuate on it's own. When you take things for granted you can actually appreciate a town the size of Akron for what it's worth.

Sure there are bigger cities, more dense and urban than Akron, which to many is a nice place to live in NE Ohio. They don't really know what it's like until they've stayed a while, and many prefer it to where they're from. But the city needs to capitalize on that while it's still there and that rep is still in place and not whittle that opportunity away. There are other cities roughly the size of Akron, either in population or physical land size, that would be more interesting, but you really don't want everyone to know that.

There is still plenty of hope for Akron, it's not in the shape Dayton and Youngstown are in to be sure, and it's doubtful the crime or the economic conditions will ever match what Cleveland has always been in some areas. But Pho, Akron is dying, a slow, unmitigated death, it's just going to take a long time to happen but it is. It was dying back in the eighties when I was there and quite honestly a lot of the work that is going on now is merely cosmetic to hide the true damage.

Unknown said...

I think it's important to not even try to compare cities like Youngstown, Akron and Cleveland to bigger cities like NYC and Chicago. They will never be like them, and why should they try? Can't we develop really thriving small cities? Isn't that what these cities were supposed to be in the first place? These places have got to reprogram themselves so that they completely let go of the steel-and-rubber days and concentrate on businesses for the future. The Youngstown Business Incubator is a good example of that, but unfortunately not everyone in Youngstown knows about it, and therefore is under the impression that absolutely nothing is going on there.