Downtown Akron has come quite a ways in the past decade.
In 2002 after 7 p.m. on any given night, South Main Street was a ghost town where only Canal Park and a few defiant bars and restaurants were trying to survive.
Despite the lack of nighttime activity, the main drag developed a reputation as a dangerous place to be after dark.
Ten years later, Akron’s South Main drag is alive and growing with the help of downtown student housing at 22 Exchange St. and 401 Lofts — apartments under construction at Cedar and Exchange streets. The area’s “nighttime economy” could soon see a healthy boost that might help ease the “brain drain” suffered by so many similar-sized cities as well as attract more businesses and patrons of all ages downtown.
“I think we’ve got something for everybody” Suzie Graham, president and CEO of Downtown Akron Partnership, said. “We run the gamut, going all the way from the southern most side of Main Street all the way to the North side. We’ve got a number of different offerings for audiences in downtown.”
The Partnership started in 1995, and its mission is to “promote and build a vibrant and valuable downtown.”
With the area’s continued growth plus the potential for an influx of bodies with discretionary income, most of the downtown bar/club/restaurant owners are holding quarterly meetings with Downtown Akron Partnership. The meetings have included local police, representatives of the University of Akron and an outside consultant trying to find ways to hype Main Street and to help UA students and others think of downtown Akron when it’s time to party.
“22 Exchange certainly boosted the 18-25 age range,” Graham said, adding that 401 Lofts is being marketed toward young professionals who are over 25. “We call them urban pioneers, the people who want to come into the area and really love the feel of metropolitan living.” Currently Main Street, from Cedar and Exchange all the way up to Furnace Street, has pockets of nighttime activity. Going north up Main, the Cedar-Exchange area features several bars that are very popular with college-aged students such as the huge dance club LUX, 69 Taps and the Lounge.
But there is also Zar, which is angling for the young professional crowd and places like the gay bar and downtown staple Tear-EZ and bar/restaurants Paolo’s and Bricco, which also cater to older crowds.
Even the street’s relative dead space near Canal Park has come alive with the Karma Kafe hookah bar, the Wing Warehouse and Primo’s Deli and Club, all of which draw college-aged students.
And then there are the Lock 3/Akron Civic Theatre-area bars around West State and Main, aka the Lock Block, such as Barley House — a restaurant that becomes an ersatz dance club on weekends — along with the Lockview and the recently opened Baxter’s Bar.
Further up Main at East Market Street are higher-end eateries such as 3 Point and Crave and the Sky Lounge nightclub and Musica, downtown’s only dedicated live music venue.
Further north, there are longtime clubs the Interbelt and Northside, along with the newer Dante Boccuzzi Akron and late-night favorite Luigi’s restaurant.
At the Barley House, Mike Pickett said in the three years he’s been general manager, he has noticed a positive change in downtown’s reputation and the general atmosphere around his bar at night.
“I think it’s getting a lot better than the [space’s troubled previous occupant] Harry Buffalo’s days, but I think it’s still in the back of some people’s minds ‘Oh, don’t go to downtown Akron,’ but it’s really not bad. … There is always going to be some trouble around bars,” he said.
But as the area grows, there are still challenges.
Many downtown bar and club owners feel the area won’t reach its full potential until it becomes a destination spot — a place that people from surrounding towns want to come to and hang out for the entire night — rather than eat dinner, see a show at the Civic or catch a baseball game and then go back home or to other areas such as Merriman Valley, downtown Kent or even Cleveland.
Jason Edge is general manager of LUX, the multimillion dollar dance club that rules the 18-25 crowd who pack the club on Thursday and Saturday nights. Edge said the economic downturn has played a part in stunting the area’s growth, but he and several of the other owners and managers believe the city needs to focus more on branding the downtown area as a safe, clean, fun place to hang out.
Edge said the problem is the city does not market the area enough.
“This is beautiful down here and there’s no trouble, no shootings. Are there fights? Of course. There’ll be fights anywhere you go. But people don’t need to fear that, there’s no reason to,” he said.
Edge said he believes that focused branding, similar to what Cleveland has tried to do for the Flats and other downtown areas, would help keep Main Street Akron on the minds of potential customers.
“We have places around here that people can go … There are people that live in Medina, Wadsworth, Brunswick, even Strongsville who will drive 30 or 40 minutes north to go party in Cleveland but won’t drive 20 minutes to come to downtown Akron and it freakin’ blows my mind,” he said.
Malcolm X Abram can be reached at 330-996-3758 or by email at email@example.com. He’s also on Facebook as Malcolm X Abram.