The recent decision of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to cancel a $7.8 million grant and loan package for the University Park Alliance flowed logically from recent events. In April, Eric Anthony Johnson abruptly exited as the alliance’s executive director. His departure reflected failed lines of communication, as much as anything, the alliance taking steps at odds with the expectations of its lead source of funding.
All of this happened after the foundation had chosen to make the substantial investment, building on what it previously routed to the ambitious project, the alliance with the goal of remaking 50 city blocks surrounding the University of Akron. No surprise the foundation first put the money on hold, and now has gone to a full stop.
What should be stressed is that the foundation hasn’t abandoned the worthy project. It has made operating funds available for the rest of the year. More, the door is open to the alliance re-evaluating and reworking the way forward, the foundation ready to renew its financial backing.
Akron hardly is the first city to take up such a cause. Cleveland has been trying something similar at University Circle. What the University Park Alliance has done is establish some solid foundation pieces, starting with the master plan put together by EE&K of New York and the $322 million the alliance partners have invested the past decade. Perhaps most impressive is the strong neighborhood component, local pastors at the lead, residents and businesses committed to elevating the area.
Eric Anthony Johnson may have been at his best painting the vision. He talked about rehabbing 500 homes in five years, of retail and office space emerging, of young professionals and empty nesters finding attractive the density and energy of urban living. Bold barely captures the scope. Yet, if successful, such an effort would give the city a distinctive sense of place, an essential part of attracting and keeping talent.
So what is the way forward? Chances are the alliance will revamp its approach to real estate, less the developer and more the facilitator. For one thing, the landscape has changed for student housing, worries now about an excess of supply.
Soon enough, the alliance must find a new executive director, one who has and maintains the confidence of the alliance board and the Knight Foundation. Most important is the approach of the board, a top flight group, including the mayor, Summit County executive, the superintendent of the Akron Public Schools, the president of the university and the heads of the three hospitals. These are busy people, yet at this crucial juncture, they must be fully engaged, strategic and practical.
Akron leaders take pride in their reputation for effective collaboration. Here, again, is a moment for testing the idea. The University Park Alliance still holds much promise. What is required now is working together to build on what has been achieved and fuel new momentum.