Mayor Don Plusquellic recently told Betty Lin-Fisher, a Beacon Journal business writer, that the University Park Alliance has been set back two years. Such has been the fallout from the sudden departure of the Eric Anthony Johnson, the alliance executive director, the organization in deep financial trouble, facing lawsuits, unpaid creditors and severe doubts about its capacity to regain ground and eventually move forward.
As Lin-Fisher reported over the weekend, the battle of the blame continues, the mayor arguing that Johnson “hoodwinked” the alliance board, which then included this newspaper. No doubt Johnson deserves a heap of criticism. Yet he no longer is here, and if the alliance is going return to its mission, in part or whole, of remaking 50 blocks around the University of Akron, then the leading local partners, including the university, the city and Summa Health System, must take a hard look at the level of their commitment.
The city has stepped up, providing a $600,000 loan guarantee and $158,000 in assistance to keep the organization from collapsing. The mission remains worthy, the pursuit of something distinctive for the city, in attracting talent and energizing its core. Progress has been made, in lining up property and mobilizing local residents. The master plan remains sound. What has deserved emphasis from the outset is the immense difficulty of the task. Many cities have tried and failed in such endeavors. Akron certainly won’t succeed if the partners are not fully devoted to the cause.
The OMG Center for Collaborative Learning delivered an assessment of the University Park Alliance roughly two months before Johnson exited. Much attention already has been paid to the portrayal of a bullying, or vehement, mayor. The report cites the precarious finances, $1.2 million in debt, including a $500,000 gap in short-term cash flow.
Most striking, at least with an eye on the future, are the positions of key partners. The report says that Summa and Akron General Medical Center “remain dubious about whether UPA meets their interests.” Both systems must contend with the tough landscape in health care. A conceptual leap ahead for the alliance was gaining a role in real estate development. Yet the report finds the alliance running into competition from the university and Summa.
In planting the seed money, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation long has expected that local support eventually must surface. On that front, the report notes that only the university showed a willingness to contribute significantly to the alliance operations.
Mayor Plusquellic has pushed for the creation of a special improvement district to generate a steady stream of local funds. That makes sense. Still, more fundamental questions hover: If the University Park Alliance can steer clear of its immediate troubles, what will be its ambition? To what extent are the partners truly willing to work together?