Akron is “aspiring to know and feel its destiny,” Eric Anthony Johnson told the Akron Roundtable on Thursday.
Johnson just finished his second year as executive director of University Park Alliance, a nonprofit group working to redevelop 50 city blocks around the University of Akron. The partners in the UPA include many of Akron’s largest employers, institutions and government institutions.
“I am a messenger for a better future,” said Johnson, who earned his doctorate in Urban Affairs and Public Policy from the University of Delaware and has worked in federal, state and local agencies in urban development.
Johnson said the world is changing and many communities are “running with what I call old playbooks.”
“Creativity and place have become the driving force that will propel economic growth,” he said. As people around the world look for jobs and economic prosperity, “communities that position themselves capitalize on this trend with an acute emphasis on place making, growing their economies from within, will be the winners in this chase for economic prosperity. It’s that simple.”
Johnson said he has seen Akron’s strengths in people, organizations, collaborations and leaders.
“Rather than lamenting about what Akron could have been, let’s ask what can we be?
“Maybe I’m looking at this picture wrong, but I think the naysayers have got it wrong, right? Akron has taken its punches and is still standing. It’s in a good position to capitalize on its assets and proximity that will be apparent in the global economy,” Johnson said.
Businesses across the country are shutting down suburban operations and bringing them back to downtown cores, Johnson said.
“If you come to see what I see, you too would see the promise that University Park offers — a promise of place. We have the capacity in this town to do all we envision. The naysayers have to get out of the way. We can’t chase prosperity. Our job is to be ready for it when it comes by paving the way ourselves and focusing on place making, building blocks that will drive the future.”
Johnson said he sees “a city that once again can enjoy amazing development, expansion in neighborhood restoration in a relatively accelerated period of time. It’s simple. If a city is not growing, it’s dying.”
“Our task is to tap into the creative furnace inside every citizen and organization and align our efforts. Let’s not get ourselves in a place where future generations ask what happened to Akron. What could Akron have been?”
Taking questions, Johnson said UPA first needed to develop what was called its master plan. It looks out to 2030, but the first five years are critical, and UPA has several projects in pre-development or development over the next 12 to 18 months. The first is a complex of retail, office and restaurant mixed-use buildings being built on East Market at the former site of Fred Martin Chevrolet.