An informed, engaged community will be the driver that creates jobs and boosts Akron’s national reputation, the head of the University Park Alliance told a crowd of nearly 600 people on Wednesday.
While many believe in what the UPA is doing, “many will say this work is a pipe dream and we’re foolish for believing in Akron,” said Eric Anthony Johnson, executive director of UPA, a nonprofit group working on the redevelopment of 50 city blocks around the University of Akron.
“I would not be standing before you if I did not believe we had the assets in this community to achieve our objectives.” Johnson told the record crowd of business and community members gathered at the University of Akron’s Quaker Station for the group’s annual meeting.
The effort needs a coalition of those willing to make it a success, he said.
“This city is built on rubber and once again in the lifetime of Akron, the rubber has got to meet the road. ... Are you among the coalition of the willing? Come join us so that the world will know who we are, what we stand for and what we do,” Johnson said.
The UPA has had a busy year building on its objectives, Johnson said, including acting on its master plan for development for downtown and surrounding areas and bringing global real-estate firm KUD International into its projects.
The strong alliances of community and business leaders in UPA is what attracted KUD to Akron, the firm’s president and chief executive, Marvin J. Suomi, told the audience.
The luncheon’s keynote speaker, Jim Clifton, the Gallup polling organization’s chairman and chief executive, said he believes Akron has economic energy.
Local leadership is key to that energy, said Clifton, author of The Coming Jobs War, which was published last October. Clifton has predicted the next economic breakthrough will come from a combination of cities, universities and local leaders.
Clifton laid out ideas for a community’s success, with local leadership cited first.
Another was that while innovation is important, it is wrong to rely only on innovation and not entrepreneurship.
“Innovation has no value whatsoever until it has a customer next to it,” he said. “Are we intentionally managing entrepreneurship?”
In the United States, Clifton said, there are 6 million small businesses with zero to 100 employees; 80,000 businesses with 100 to 500 employees; 18,000 businesses with 500 to 10,000 employees; and only 1,000 companies with 10,000-plus employees.
“This whole democracy and republic rides on the backs of the 6 million small businesses. Those are the precious gems throughout your whole city,” Clifton said.
Communities need to seek entrepreneurs to help and mentor small businesses, he said.
Clifton said communities must “maximize the potential of all the kids in this town from fifth grade to 12th grade. They have enormous entrepreneurial energy.”
“What exactly are you doing here in Akron to juice those kids? It’s gotta be intentional,” he said, encouraging business leaders to offer internships and mentor youth.
As if on cue, after Clifton’s speech, UPA officials awarded $17,500 to winners of a business plan start-up competition and up to $4,000 in scholarships to high school students.
Winners of the business plan competition will receive consulting assistance and help in finding locations.
• Rubber City Prints, a collaborative fine art print studio and gallery co-founded by Pam Testa and Nicole Schneider. A minimum of 2,500 square feet of industrial space will be required for the new venture.
• Summit City Climbing Gym, an indoor climbing and fitness facility, which will be an urban destination for fitness enthusiasts and adventure seekers. Co-founders Nathan and Liz Yokum own Rock Candy Holds LLC, which produces indoor rock-climbing holds in the United States with distribution internationally. Their 10,000-square-foot climbing space will be the largest indoor facility in the area.
The scholarship winners were:
• Amal Almahd, a senior at North High School.
• Damaris Enriquez, who will graduate from Akron Early College High School with a degree from Akron Public Schools and an associate degree from the University of Akron.
• Twins Art and Leanna Sherman, seniors at Firestone High School.
Also honored was Tony O’Leary, UPA board president and executive director of the Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority, an alliance partner. O’Leary’s two-year tenure as board president ends in June and Akron school Superintendent David James, who is now vice chairman, will take over as UPA president.