For all of its current financial difficulties, the University Park Alliance has success stories. None is more impressive than the Neighborhood Network, dozens of people mobilizing and implementing initiatives to enhance the 50 blocks around the University of Akron at the core of the city. In many ways, the effort has been led by local churches, looking to build a greater sense of community, of ownership. Various projects have been set in motion the past few years, including gardens planted and houses rehabilitated.
On Monday, Betty Lin-Fisher, a Beacon Journal business writer, captured the resoluteness of the network. The participants are undaunted by the troubles facing the alliance partners, the three hospitals, the university, city schools and local businesses. No matter what ultimately happens to the beleaguered alliance, the neighbors hope to take full advantage of the new energy, passion and organization that have been tapped and unleashed.
The alliance has been reeling since the sudden exit of its executive director last spring. Eric Anthony Johnson left behind a mess, among other things, bills unpaid and pledges for development unfulfilled. The alliance now faces lawsuits. A local bank has placed a hold on its funds.
Part of the problem involved the challenges of the local real estate market. Yet the depth of trouble means there is no quick route to restoring the support of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the primary financial backer of the effort. The foundation withdrew a grant and loan totaling $7.8 million. It is open to the alliance reapplying — if it can get its act together.
In that way, the brave talk of the Neighborhood Network is heartening. At the same time, it should be clear: This is a collaborative effort, and not just among the alliance partners. To make progress along a tough road, local residents need the engagement of the large institutional players, their clout, leadership and resources.
That is what is so disappointing about the past year, the breakdown in collaboration, the project suffering from a lapse in communication between the executive director and the alliance board, and between the foundation and the alliance. As a result, the institutional players let down the Neighborhood Network, which had taken much inspiration from their participation.
Now the institutions have reason to take inspiration from the spirit of the neighborhood groups, equalling their determination to move forward, finding a path toward regaining the ambition and promise of the University Park Alliance.