Something Mayor Don Plusquellic didn’t expect happened when he spoke in East Akron last fall to drum up support for the pending school levy.
When he mentioned that business leaders from another country were in town to check out Akron, people clapped. As Plusquellic tried to remember what he had just said that drew the applause, he realized they were indicating support for his international efforts.
“This group of regular people in East Akron — in East Akron — they suddenly get it,” Plusquellic recalls thinking. “I’m meeting with business leaders to attract them here. Finally, I’ve reached the crest.”
Plusquellic’s international economic development campaign, which also has involved him regularly traveling to other countries, might be the effort that has drawn him the most praise — and the most criticism — during his 27 years as mayor. It’s also one of the reasons the Greater Akron Chamber picked him as this year’s winner of the H. Peter Burg award, which honors business leaders for promoting economic development in the Akron area.
Plusquellic will be recognized Tuesday evening before a sold-out, record crowd of 1,100 people at the John S. Knight Center.
“I’ve been with him, and it’s not easy work,” Joe Kanfer, president and CEO of GOJO Industries and a past Burg award recipient, said of the international trips. “You are constantly spending time on your feet, meeting people, pitching Akron, bringing business to Akron. [The city] is not on the top of the list when a company is thinking of coming to America.
“If you are not out there selling your community, you are not going to get [companies] to come,” Kanfer said.
Past recipients of the Burg award and the chamber’s executive committee chose Plusquellic. He is the first elected official picked for the honor, which previously has gone to business leaders in the private sector.
Steve Marks, chief executive officer of Main Street Gourmet and last year’s winner, will present the award.
“So many big projects have happened over the past few years,” said Rebecca Guzy Woodford, vice president of the Greater Akron Chamber. “That made a big impression on our previous winners, along with the executive committee.”
Plusquellic said he is honored to receive the award, especially because he knew the late Burg well and worked closely with the FirstEnergy CEO on numerous projects. The mayor has been recognized nationally and internationally for his economic development efforts, but said it’s nice to be singled out in his hometown by such a distinguished group.
“I think it’s very significant to receive something from people who realize this is not just a year’s work, but a career’s work,” said Plusquellic, 63, Akron’s longest-serving mayor.
As Plusquellic spoke, maps and drawings propped on the ledge of his conference center illustrated his efforts over the years: two maps of the biomedical corridor, a coordinated effort between the University of Akron and the hospitals that Plusquellic dreamed up to attract medical businesses to the city; a drawing of the new Firestone/Litchfield Community Learning Center (the mayor came up with the idea of using income taxes to pay for the school district’s construction project); and a map of the downtown entertainment district.
Asked about his most significant accomplishment, Plusquellic picked two.
He chose the development of downtown — doubling the number of people working in the center city from 15,000 to 30,000 during his tenure. He likes to point out that this raised enough revenue to pay for the salaries of 125 firefighters or police officers. He said he no longer hears complaints about the city investing in downtown.
Plusquellic also pointed to the creation of joint economic development districts (JEDDs), which facilitate tax sharing between cities and surrounding communities in exchange for utilities and helped curb the annexation wars and business poaching that used to be the norm. Akron has agreements with four townships and five communities and is currently working on one with Hudson.
“This has taken out of the public domain the animosity and the battles,” Plusquellic said. “That is vitally important for our whole region.”
What others say
Kanfer thinks Plusquellic’s most important accomplishment was keeping the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.’s headquarters in Akron. He said the mayor has created a good balance between providing for “quality of life and business needs.”
William Considine, president and CEO of Akron Children’s Hospital and another past Burg winner, points to the creation of the biomedical corridor as the mayor’s crowning achievement.
He said the corridor is creating bridges between Akron and numerous countries, including Slovenia, Israel, Finland and Germany.
Plusquellic said the main thing he still wants to achieve is creating scholarships for graduating high school seniors. Voters shot down his proposal in 2008 to lease the city’s sewers to fund college scholarships.
The mayor said he’s searching for another way to generate funds, though probably with a smaller pot of money than the sewer lease would have provided.
“I would like to do that in my lifetime,” he said. “That’s the single most significant difference I could make.”
Considine highlighted Plusquellic’s commitment to helping children as one of the reasons he deserves the award. He said the mayor has supported every levy campaign and proposed the sewer-lease idea.
“He’s not afraid to get out there on a limb and advocate for our children,” he said.