Eric Anthony Johnson is resigning from the top post at University Park Alliance, a high-profile Akron nonprofit seeking to renew a large portion of the city’s core.
Johnson, who was appointed executive director in July 2010, said he was resigning to take care of his critically ill mother in Kansas.
He leaves several months after the alliance received a big financial boost: an award of nearly $8 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The award includes a $6 million grant to be paid over five years and a $1.8 million low-interest loan for a development project on East Market Street near downtown.
Johnson, a native of New Orleans, left the Cleveland Port Authority in 2010 to take the top job at the alliance, which has the ambitious goal of renewing a 50-block area around the University of Akron.
Johnson said Thursday that he briefly considered taking a leave of absence, but didn’t think it was fair to his family or to the alliance.
“This is not about another job,” Johnson said. “It’s about my mother is really ill and I’ve got to step away to take care of my mom right now. ... I gave some long and hard thought to it before I made the decision, but it’s one I have to take.”
His resignation is effective April 12.
The alliance was formed in 2001 by the University of Akron, the city and Summa Health System. It was modeled after similar partnerships in other cities and grew out of a separate group created to address what were considered deteriorating conditions near the UA campus.
Board chairman of the alliance, David James, superintendent of the Akron Public Schools, praised Johnson for his “grass-roots community engagement,” involving residents of the alliance area and community groups.
James also noted Johnson’s work in getting the first alliance-owned development, University Square, off the ground. The $1.8 million loan from the Knight Foundation was for this project, under way at East Market and Forge streets, at the edge of downtown.
The project’s first building, the new Child Guidance & Family Services facility, recently opened.
A complex of retail, office and restaurant mixed-use buildings also is planned for the site, previously occupied by the Fred Martin Chevrolet auto dealership.
“We are really going to miss [Johnson’s] vision, for what University Park can be.”
James said an interim manager of the alliance likely would be appointed, giving the alliance board time to search for a successor to Johnson.
Alliance board member Tony O’Leary, executive director of Akron Metropolitan Housing Authority, noted in a prepared statement that Johnson was integral in the development of what was called a master plan for the area. The plan, unveiled less than a year after Johnson joined the alliance, was created by architecture and planning firm EE&K of New York. It envisions a wellness center and loft apartments along the canal near Akron Children’s Hospital and downtown.
The plan also suggests developing the East Exchange Street corridor by the University of Akron and creating a focal point of research and development firms, as well as retail and housing along East Market Street near Summit Health System’s City Hospital and UA.
Johnson’s work with the Community Neighborhood Network was noted in the alliance’s prepared statement. This network is made up of block-watch captains, members of the faith community, and nonprofit and business participants who regularly meet to work on plans, including improving area housing.
Housing has been a focus of the group. Under Johnson’s tenure, it bought 12 rental properties along Excelsior Avenue in an effort to stabilize the area and create a revenue stream for the alliance.
UPA also manages other properties.
The Knight Foundation has been a big supporter of the alliance, awarding it a total of $18 million in the last six years. The $6 million, five-year grant awarded several months ago “will go to engage neighborhood residents, local businesses and city institutions to ensure they are directly involved in the direction and evolution of the University Park revitalization,” according to the Knight Foundation. The Miami-based Knight Foundation invests in communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers, including the Beacon Journal.
Johnson got his bachelor’s degree from Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., where he played basketball. His mother moved there when he was in college and never left, he said. Johnson has a master’s degree from Minnesota State University and a Ph.D. in urban affairs and public policy from the University of Delaware.
Johnson was real-estate director at the Cleveland Port Authority. According to the alliance’s latest available Form 990 (nonprofit) federal tax return, Johnson’s salary was $60,000 in the tax year ended June 30, 2011.