With the arrival of Eric Anthony Johnson in 2010, the University Park Alliance gained vision, energy and drive. The new executive director brought a sense of the possible to the highly ambitious objective, transforming 50 blocks surrounding the University of Akron, helping, no less, to renew city life, attract talent and fuel the local and regional economy.
On Thursday, Johnson announced that he would step down, his final day coming at the end of this week. He cited a need to care for his ailing mother in Kansas. This is most understandable. It doesn’t erase the disappointment about his departure. All along, he had talked, and rightly so, about the steady leadership required, so much set in motion, the director the adhesive holding the partners together, the university, Summa Health System, the city, the public schools and others.
Johnson can point to significant achievements, a top-notch master plan, the arrival of KUD International, a global real estate firm, the organizing of neighborhoods with a stake, a new home for Child Guidance & Family Services and a start for University Square, at East Market and Forge streets. True, too, is that entering a challenging real estate market involves bumpiness, a factor of two steps forward and one back often at work. All of that places a premium on communication and collaboration among the alliance partners.
Unfortunately, the effort has suffered breakdowns on both fronts. At times, partners have not been as attentive as originally pledged. Johnson also has contributed to the trouble, especially in failing to communicate effectively enough with the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the leading supporter of the alliance, having put up $18 million the past six years. Allow communication lines to erode, and misunderstandings surface. Divergent paths are taken. Trust fades.
If anything, this is a moment for reaffirming the value of the project, taking what has been positive about Johnson’s leadership and moving forward. Succeed even partly, and the city and region will benefit. Yet to do so requires the uncommon working together about which Akron leaders frequently boast — and must deliver. It involves a recognition that the University Park Alliance is part of a whole, including the Austen BioInnovation Institute and the biomedical corridor, all designed to give the city a sense of place and an edge.
Now the task is finding someone who brings even more than Johnson to the job, committed to the vision and the practical steps necessary to build on what has been laid.