What is Elevate Greater Akron?

February 27, 2020

Elevate Greater Akron is an economic development plan for the Greater Akron area.

Blue and white logo that says Elevate Greater Akron

This initiative is the product of a first-ever collaboration between four entities: County of Summit, City of Akron, Greater Akron Chamber, and GAR Foundation, who came together to create a transformative, high-functioning and collaborative economic development system for Akron. Each entity, in addition to other key partners and stakeholders, plays a unique and critical role in the execution of this initiative. The initiative is informed by extensive market research, local interviews, and insights from emerging practices in peer cities. Today, the  focus of this initiative is to embrace the new fundamentals of economic development – getting back to what works and working together to grow the region.

The Goal

The focus of Elevate Greater Akron is to transform the culture of economic development, expand opportunity for all residents, and position the Akron region on a new trajectory in an era of rapid global change.

The Strategies

There are five strategies that Elevate Greater Akron is pursuing that address small- and middle-market business growth:

New Approach to Business Retention and Expansion
Strategy Lead: Jason Dodson | Consultant, Summit County

Goal: Focus on increasing competitiveness of scale-up and mid-market businesses.

Opportunity Akron
Strategy Lead: Robert DeJournett | VP, Opportunity & Inclusion, Greater Akron Chamber

Goal: Be highly intentional in ensuring that Akron’s Black population is positioned to engage in, and share the benefits of regional growth and prosperity.

Spark Akron
Strategy Lead: Heather Roszcyk | Innovation & Entrepreneurship Advocate, City of Akron

Goal: Support Akron’s innovation, entrepreneurs, and startup potential.

Refocus on Urban Centers
Strategy Lead: Adele Dorfner Roth |Director of Development, Office of Integrated Development, City of Akron

Goal: Prioritize the development in, and growth to, downtown Akron and other job hubs.

Elevate Greater Akron
Strategy Lead: Steve Millard | President & CEO, Greater Akron Chamber

Goal: Establish a unified culture of economic development.

The Research

A market assessment – informed by extensive research, local interviews, and insights from emerging practices in other metros – was developed to ensure a strong understanding of Akron’s situation. This resulted in eight key findings that drive the recommended strategies in the plan. The key findings from the initial report include:

The Akron regional economy is neither distressed nor dynamic.

In a Midwest region defined by persistent economic distress, Akron’s economy over the past decade is best described as being in stasis. But Akron’s relative stability has enabled it to avoid reckoning with the fact that the regional economy is threatened by a lack of dynamism. Today, Akron does not have an obvious catalyst to shift its economic trajectory and position the region to compete in the future.

Akron faces strong headwinds that threaten its steady position.

The structure of the economy is changing in ways that make it more difficult for Akron and other small metro areas to grow new firms and industries. Innovation is increasingly concentrated in a few “elite” metro areas with abundant talent. Startup rates are in a decades-long decline. The manufacturing sector is struggling. Middle-wage job opportunities continue to shrink. These growing market headwinds are threatening the assets that have allowed Akron to “coast” in recent years .

Traditional economic development approaches are proving incapable of effectively confronting these headwinds.

The traditional economic development model does not align with what matters in today’s economy. Economic development organizations (EDOs) are either “doubling down” on outdated approaches (sales-oriented, incentives-driven, and increasingly expensive attempts to attract businesses), or shifting to a more balanced approach focused on drivers of development, such as skills, entrepreneurship, and innovation. But adaptation brings its own challenges, such as the difficulty of regional collaboration when different EDOs adopt different strategies and compete for limited resources.

The Akron region’s economic development system is outdated and fragmented.

Akron’s economic development efforts have been disconnected, outdated, and focused on attracting outside investment at the expense of developing the potential of local people and firms. It has been hampered by parochialism both locally and in the Northeast Ohio region.

There are several potentially transformative, but overlooked, economic development opportunities in Akron.

The region has not made smart, concerted, and sustained investments in several areas that could propel the regional economy onto a new trajectory. One key area of latent potential includes young, high-growth, high tech firms. (Akron has had 42 firms in the Inc. 5000 over the past five years, placing it in the top 40% of mid-sized metro areas for its concentration of such firms per million residents.) Another area of untapped potential is scale-up and mid-sized firms, which are often overlooked despite creating most new U.S. jobs. A third is coordinated effort to develop and grow a polymers or advanced materials cluster, which could become a successful and unique cluster effort 3 that could give the region a toehold in a new set of growing, adjacent markets.

The Akron region lacks the workforce skills to fulfill demand for good jobs in increasingly digitized and mid-tech occupations.

Reflecting an accelerated version of a broad national trend, Akron has experienced an extraordinarily rapid shift to a digital economy. From 2002 to 2016, the growth in the level of digital skills required for the average job was greater in Akron than 95 of the 100 largest U.S. metro areas. The region’s workforce development system has struggled to keep pace. The resulting digital skills shortage threatens Akron in two ways. First, it limits Akron’s ability to support the growth of its existing traded sector firms, which, regardless of industry, need workers with mid-level digital skills. Second, it will make it difficult for Akron to capitalize on the opportunity to attract operations that provide “mid-tech” support functions for the IT industry (such as database administration, information security, and computer programming).

Much of Akron, particularly its black population, is excluded from economic opportunity – which represents a major threat to growth and competitiveness.

Amidst a general decline in economic opportunity, Akron’s black population is experiencing particularly troubling economic outcomes. Of the 100 largest U.S. metro areas from 2005 to 2015, Akron ranked among the 10 worst metro areas for the decline in the black employment rate, and the five worst for the decline in black earnings. Akron’s economy cannot succeed if this population – 31 percent of the city’s residents and 12 percent of the region’s – is not succeeding.

Anemic growth in Akron’s downtown and other job hubs hinders the economic development potential of the entire region.

Akron’s new downtown plan and several other civic efforts have generated momentum, but this could be stifled due to the fact that Akron lacks an organization to drive the plan, secure resources, and gain stronger corporate involvement. In addition to sustaining progress on downtown, the region needs to reverse a broader trend of job sprawl. According to the Fund for Our Economic Future, 13 of the region’s 20 largest “job hubs” lost traded sector jobs from 2002 to 2015, even as overall jobs in the region remained stable.

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