If what Akron leaders saw in a visit to Nebraska serves as an inspiration, the city could focus on these goals:
• A downtown hotel.
• Encouraging entrepreneurship and job creation.
• Working on retaining professional talent along with development and education initiatives.
• Finding space for innovation and workers from different industries and professions to collaborate.
Those were the top “action items” identified by 58 community leaders and executives who spent three days visiting Omaha, Neb., to hear and see what that city believes it is doing right.
The group, sponsored by the Greater Akron Chamber, included a mix of government officials, heads of companies and nonprofit organizations and representatives of businesses, including young professionals.
Three days after returning, about 25 of the visitors met Friday in Akron to talk about objectives and priorities and finally to vote for three goals.
The votes were so close that the group came up with four. The list will be shared for more conversations and the development of action plans.
It was the second “inter-city” visit organized by the Chamber. The first was two years ago, when a group of 41 Akron leaders toured Milwaukee.
In Omaha, the visitors saw and heard entrepreneurship, philanthropy led by resident millionaires, downtown investment, walkable spaces and a focus on keeping young people from taking their talents to other places.
Dan Colantone, president and chief executive officer of the Chamber, said the trip “accomplished exactly what we wanted. We engaged our leadership. We’ve got a plan. There’s absolutely things that will come out of here that the Chamber will lead.”
Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic liked what he saw in collaboration in a former furniture factory, called Mastercraft, which now houses startup businesses with a technology base.
A word that was used by several people was “co-location,” referring to collaborative efforts among workers and companies with different missions.
Joe Kanfer, the CEO of GOJO Industries, said that kind of work sparks innovation.
“I would like to have a common place. I would love it if some GOJO formulator sat next to some Firestone formulator,” he said. “I bet I could learn something about tire marketing that would help me sell Purell.”
Purell is one of GOJO’s main health-care products.
Ken Babby, the new Akron Aeros owner, said the trip confirmed what he believes he has seen in strong leadership in the city since he’s arrived.
It “continues to remind me how fortunate we are to have the sense of community and willingness to really collaborate to make Akron better. We take a strong leadership group like this away from the place where we do business everyday and you appreciate the quality of leadership. In Omaha, while we saw some incredible things, I didn’t feel in our short time that same sense of community and collaboration.
“We have all the brainpower, energy and sense of community in Akron to accomplish everything in Omaha and much more in downtown Akron and Summit County,” said Babby, who bought the minor league baseball team and moved to the city from Washington, D.C., last October.
The group took a tour of the 1.1-million square-foot Century Link Center in Omaha, which includes a convention center and an 18,300-seat arena. By comparison, Akron’s John S. Knight Center is 129,000 square feet.
The Omaha site hosts national entertainment shows, Creighton University’s men’s basketball games and the U.S. Olympic swim trials.
The Akron visitors said they were impressed, but some said it was a risk to build such a large facility on the edge of town without a professional sports tenant.
Talk of the need for an arena in downtown Akron was a frequent subject on the trip, though many said it would need to be the right scale to serve the University of Akron and the greater community as a venue for family entertainment.
Akron’s Canal Park baseball stadium, which opened in 1997, has attracted visitors to the city’s center during summer months, but an arena could offer booking dates throughout a calendar year and spark further downtown development.
GOJO’s Kanfer said, “Creating a critical mass and people bumping into each other leads to energy, innovation, collaboration and excitement that draws people in.”
One thing the participants noticed throughout their three-day visit, however, was that while Omaha had several successful projects, Akron visitors didn’t always see people milling about during the day.
Unlike the university setting in Akron, Creighton and the University of Nebraska Omaha are not located in the city’s core.
However, the group did see Aksarben Village (Nebraska spelled backward), a walkable community of unique shops, restaurants, cinema and green spaces.
Another stop was the Midtown Crossing project, the redevelopment by Mutual of Omaha of blighted land near its headquarters. It has become a community of residential homes, a grocery store, restaurants, a hotel and a movie theater.
Plusquellic said he thought there was a mistake in Omaha city planning by locating projects so far apart from each other. A few of the Nebraska presenters acknowledged that Omaha was not a “walkable” city, but called it a “driveable” city.
“They have wonderful stand-alone projects, but their arena is out in the middle of nowhere and their streets were just barren,” said Plusquellic. “We have done a much better job of having synergy. In a downtown, the more you can have people walk, the safer they feel.”
Akron participants acknowledged that the economic drivers for many of the projects in Omaha are different.
Omaha’s real estate developments had the benefit of being paid for by wealthy philanthropists, who earned their money by investing early in famous billionaire Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, and companies such as Mutual of Omaha, who used their own money to redevelop their Midtown Crossing project.
“While the development projects in Omaha were on a much larger scale than what we see here, the logic behind them is very similar: creating a sense of place, a destination that people want to go, and promoting economic growth,” said David James, Akron schools superintendent and board chair of the University Park Alliance. UPA, a nonprofit organization, is struggling to reorganize its finances to redevelop 50 blocks around the University of Akron.
The trip had a packed itinerary of 14-hour days, but allowed interaction between the visitors. For Amanda Leffler, a partner at law firm Brouse McDowell, it was a new opportunity for someone who viewed herself as a “young professional” to work with what she called Akron’s established leaders.
The trip also was a homecoming for two leaders — new Akron Art Museum Executive Director and CEO Mark Masuoka, who just left Omaha in July for his new job, and Fred Wright, president and CEO of the Akron Urban League, who lived in Omaha from 1982 to 2002.
The visit included a stop at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Masuoka’s former employer. Masuoka also took the group on a detour outside the Century Link Convention Center and Arena to show them the Blue Cube, a large art piece by Justin Stewart, a son-in-law of Kanfer.
Masuoka realized he knew Stewart and told Kanfer of the piece of art, which Kanfer had not seen in person, during that morning’s breakfast conversation.