Anna Wilson had an unusual request.
She wanted to share a candlelight dinner on a parking deck in downtown Akron with her boyfriend, who soon would be moving out of state for a new job. The couple had met, fallen in love and experienced many good times in the city.
Wilson made several calls and sent numerous email messages to various people around town. Eventually, someone told her to contact Deputy Mayor Dave Lieberth.
She expected his return email to tell her the idea was impossible or to question her sanity.
Instead, Lieberth replied, “Pick a date and a time. We’ll make it happen.”
And he did.
Lieberth even erected the barricade to block the top of the parking deck attached to the Akron- Summit County Public Library that July evening. Wilson and Jonathan Lloyd had their dinner under the stars with a great view of downtown.
“It was extremely special for both of us,” said Wilson, marketing director at Echogen Power Systems in Akron. “That’s my short, but fond, memory of Dave Lieberth.”
Lieberth, who will retire Saturday as Akron’s deputy mayor of administration/chief of staff after a decade in the job, is known as the guy who can “make it happen” — whether it’s a dinner for two on top of a parking deck or a holiday lighting ceremony and fireworks display for thousands of people.
“He would do that for anyone,” said Suzie Graham, the head of Downtown Akron Partnership who suggested Wilson call Lieberth. “He goes the extra mile.”
Lieberth, who has been nonchalant about his retirement, including during a send-off earlier this month that featured fireworks, confetti and a performance by the University of Akron marching band, got a little emotional in a recent interview as he recalled helping Wilson.
“It was such a touching thing she wanted to do,” he said, his eyes tearing up. “It told me how much affection people have for downtown.”
Lieberth’s help with the transformation of downtown from a place where people felt unsafe and didn’t want to visit to one where thousands flock year-round for concerts, events, dinners and other activities, probably will be his greatest legacy. Mayor Don Plusquellic credits Lieberth for the success of Lock 3 and Lock 4 parks, which have become major downtown draws.
“I think it’s been something that has been just short of phenomenal,” Plusquellic said.
Lieberth wasn’t always in public service, however. He started his career covering City Hall rather than working in it.
Covering the city
Lieberth’s first career was as a reporter and later a news director for WHLO radio. He was covering the city when Plusquellic, also in his 20s at the time, first was elected to Akron City Council.
He kept all of his radio scripts, including the one from December 1974 that mentions Plusquellic being sworn in.
Lieberth, even then keeping a nearly impossible schedule, started law school, juggling his time between work and classes. After getting his degree, he joined Bob Blakemore’s law firm, specializing in domestic relations cases.
Jeff Heintz, an Akron attorney who was an associate with the firm and has been friends with Lieberth ever since, jokingly described the younger Lieberth as “insufferable, just like he is now.”
“He was and is very hard-working and he’s got a real inquisitive mind,” Heintz said.
Lieberth left and started his own firm.
Plusquellic tried to recruit Lieberth, who had written several speeches for him, to work for him, but Lieberth turned him down because of his law practice.
The mayor tried again in 2002, at a time when Lieberth’s law practice had changed. He no longer had a firm and was mostly doing mediation work. He told Plusquellic he would take him up on his offer, but he didn’t want to leave his secretary, Laurie Hoffman, behind.
Plusquellic, who had an opening for a secretary in his office, agreed to hire them both. (Hoffman is still in his office and will remain after Lieberth’s retirement.)
When Lieberth started his job as chief of staff, he and Plusquellic agreed on his top priority: downtown Akron.
“Downtown was a mess,” Lieberth recalled. “There was nothing happening. It felt unsafe. There was nothing to bring people downtown.”
Plusquellic and Lieberth recognized that people from numerous agencies had an interest in downtown, but none of them was responsible for it. Lieberth became the go-to guy.
Lieberth thinks his biggest achievement with downtown development was helping to hash out an agreement between numerous parties that got the crumbling Canal Park Tower apartment building demolished and found new homes for the 150 residents, most with mental disabilities. Akron got a $900,000 federal grant to help pay for the relocation costs of the residents.
“It was very complex, but we did it,” Lieberth said. “It was a way to further development and took this population out of the center city.”
Heintz, who represented the owner of Canal Park Tower in the negotiations, gives Lieberth much of the credit for making the deal happen.
“I think one of the reasons we were able to arrive at a solution is because of Dave’s skills at mediation and how he was able to convene all the interest groups,” Heintz said. “It was pretty amazing.”
The city built a sand volleyball court where the building once stood. Each year it attracts about 2,000 people downtown to play in leagues.
Graham, who previously worked for the city and became head of Downtown Akron Partnership last year, said the impact Lieberth “has made in the downtown community during his time with the city is enormous.” She pointed to the success of Lock 3 as an example. The venue, which is celebrating its 10th anniversary season this year, attracted 500,000 visitors in 2011.
“It is now a destination for people to enjoy time with friends and family — a family-friendly space,” Graham said. “Fifteen years ago, people were afraid to come downtown. To see people come with children in strollers is fabulous.”
Besides his contributions downtown, Lieberth also is known for his regimented schedule and attention to detail. He gets out of bed each day at 4:30 a.m. and is downtown in his office by 5.
He checks his emails, looks at his calendar and then, unless it’s going to be an especially busy day, goes next door to the CitiCenter Athletic Club to work out. He’s back in his office by 6:30 a.m., eating a bagel at his desk while looking for stories that mention the city in the newspaper.
“He gets more done before the start of the day than most people get done the rest of an eight-hour day,” Plusquellic said. “He’s a workhorse.”
Lieberth works until about 6 p.m., when he tries to make it home in time to have dinner with is wife, Lynne. He normally goes to his office for at least a few hours on Saturday and Sunday, and once went an entire year without taking a vacation.
Plusquellic said Lieberth doesn’t have a great “bedside manner,” and can rub people the wrong way. But, he counts him among the best members of his Cabinet and a person he would love to still have working for him.
“I’ve learned over the years that, with people who get a lot of things done, [they] are aggressive and keep moving on. The fallout is they don’t make everybody happy,” Plusquellic said. “Give me 10 Dave Lieberths and I can conquer the world.”
Lieberth and Plusquellic agree they worked well together because they are so different.
“I am compulsive about time,” Lieberth said. “He’s almost never on time. He’s the opposite of punctual.”
Plusquellic admits his lack of punctuality drove Lieberth crazy, and vice versa.
“I couldn’t operate that way,” the mayor said of Lieberth’s routine. “[Stuff] happens — literally. I couldn’t have survived if I couldn’t roll with punches.”
Still, he added, “The world needs people like Dave.”
Lieberth made no secret of the fact he planned to retire this year.
He just didn’t say when until he finally announced in late August that he had picked Dec. 1 as the date. This allowed him to oversee the kickoff of the holiday festivities at Lock 3, last weekend, his last hurrah downtown.
“I will be in this chair until midnight Nov. 30,” Lieberth said during an interview in his office. “I will park my car, leave the keys and I’m out of here. That’s the way I’ve done it three times before.”
Though it might be easy for Lieberth to leave — or at least he makes it sound that way — it might not be that simple to replace him.
During a recent council meeting, Council President Marco Sommerville tipped his hat to Lieberth, noting that he moves in many circles, from ballet to hip hop.
“One man cannot replace you,” he told Lieberth.
Plusquellic said he will make an announcement by the end of the year about who will take over Lieberth’s duties, including taking charge of downtown. He said he probably will have a new chief of staff, though that person might not have the same responsibilities Lieberth handled. He said the Akron mayor has had a chief of staff for 39 years, predating his time in the office.
As for Lieberth, he, not surprisingly, has plans. He has rented an office downtown and says he will show up there bright and early on the Monday after his retirement. He wants to write a book about Akron’s development over the past 10 to 15 years and make a film about Peter Jones, who made the Native American statues that are displayed around town.
Lieberth also is looking forward to going to Lock 3 to simply enjoy it.
“I want to go to a Lock 3 concert without worry about whether the trash is picked up, the music is too loud or if there’s enough staff to sell beer,” he said. “I want to come and sit and have a good time.”