Akron’s downtown can drive its economic future

Brittany LaPointe \
September 02, 2015

This article originally appeared on Smart Business Online. 

Akron is on the brink of a historic election. In the course of one day, Akron will choose its first new chief executive in almost three decades and seat an entire city council — a moment of opportunity as Akron defines its future.
While there are many opinions about potential priorities, I’ll posit that Akron’s new leadership should put a vibrant downtown at the top of the list. A thriving downtown advances everyone’s best interests, from downtown businesses and residents to beneficiaries further afield like suburban businesses and residents.
A great downtown is a talent magnet. We’ve all read for years that the urban lifestyle is highly prized by well-educated millennials who will drive the next wave of innovation in our existing businesses and who will start new firms of their own. Researchers tell us that millennials choose a place before they choose a job, that they favor dense urban environs that are walkable and bikeable, that they value authentic places with rich local texture.
In recent years, that research has come to life. Our neighbors to the north have seen downtown living explode, with over 13,000 people now living in downtown Cleveland and a residential occupancy rate of 97 percent. To our south, Columbus is seeing a downtown boom of its own, with over 7,000 residents, up from 3,800 just 10 years ago. To the east, Pittsburgh weighs in with over 12,000 downtown residents, nearly one-third of whom walk or bike to work. These downtown dwellers have given all three of these cities powerful new ammo in the war for talent.
But a vibrant downtown is not only important as a tool in the talent attraction game. For a community like Akron that has already invested in quality downtown assets — the world class Akron Art Museum, the rejuvenated Canal Park, the Towpath connecting downtown to our national park and dozens more — a push to take downtown from good to great is just smart leveraging of our cumulative investments.
Akron’s new leadership must make it clear that downtown is open for business — all kinds of business, including the large anchor tenants we’ve had for years, as well as smaller firms, startups, retail, restaurants and interesting places to linger. As a city, Akron must enthusiastically welcome business to downtown and appreciate the business that has been here all along, making it impossibly easy for a business to locate and grow in the heart of our community.
Akron should take a cue from neighboring downtowns that have rolled out the red carpet for would-be downtown residents. Is it time to convert some of Akron’s many commercial downtown holdings into residential stock? And importantly, Akron’s new leaders must embrace and drive a downtown plan that sets a frame for future development, knitting together our many assets block by block, and driving our attention, resources and creativity to the next sensible place. Akron has all the tools it needs to awaken the sleeping giant that is right under its nose. Let’s lead with a great downtown.

 Christine Mayer is president of GAR Foundation