Akron Police Lt. Mark Farrar on Saturday strolled by Highland Theatre, Square Records and Square Bar as clouds threatened more rain on this summery afternoon.

He was off duty, but in uniform and working a side gig interacting with people at Highland Square, part of a new initiative launched last week to keep the city’s increasingly busy, eclectic neighborhood safe as warm weather begins to attract crowds.

Ward 1 Councilman Rich Swirsky organized Step Up for Square Safety, but it’s being paid for by Highland Square’s business owners who until now never collaborated.

“It was a bit like herding cats,” Swirsky said during an interview last week.

Swirsky started this spring going door to door along this short stretch of West Market Street pitching the idea to the bars, restaurants and other businesses.

In the end, 22 owners — representing about 80 percent of the businesses — agreed to chip in a little more than $100 a month to pay for about 12 hours of off-duty police foot patrols per week.

Swirsky is not disclosing when off-duty police will be working — he said he doesn’t want to tip off law breakers — but said police will work solo shifts during the day and in pairs at night.

No spike or particular crime spurred Swirsky’s action, he said, only the knowledge that summer was approaching, a time when the walkable neighborhood comes alive.

“It’s not just in the businesses’ self-interest,” Swirsky said. “We want to keep Highland Square a place where people feel good walking around, where arts are celebrated and where people of all different backgrounds feel welcome.”

Hangout for hipsters

Highland Square resident and Mustard Seed owner Phil Nabors already hires security to keep his parking lot, store and cafe safe, but he ponied up for the wider effort, too.

“Why? Because I believe in the neighborhood,” he said. “It’s better to prevent [crime] than talk about it after it happens.”

Nabors, who opened the first Mustard Seed in the Montrose area in the ’80s, said he took a big chance building a second Mustard Seed at Highland Square. As part of the deal, he also manages the next-door plaza anchored at either end by a Wally Waffle and a Chipotle.

He’s left a store space vacant in the plaza since a fair-trade store left, waiting to find just the right local tenant — maybe a florist or salon — to add to life at Highland Square, which he compares to Coventry, a Cleveland Heights neighborhood that was a hipster hangout for generations.

Nabors didn’t mention it, but Coventry in 2011 made national news after thousands of teens connected through social media converged on its annual neighborhood street fair.

A few teens caused trouble, 16 were arrested, and the community so feared a repeat that city leaders canceled the fair — which began around 1974 — for at least the next two years. They also instituted a teenage curfew banning teens from the area from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

Keeping area safe

Highland Square hasn’t experienced anything similar.

But Rachel Yunker — the owner, director and instructor at Martell School of Dance — said general safety at Highland Square is a “huge concern for my students.”

Yunker, who worked at Martell 16 years before buying the studio about a year ago, said foot traffic has picked up in recent years, particularly after the opening of Mustard Seed and the new plaza where Mr. Zub’s moved.

“It’s just a little happening, cool part of Akron,” she said.

More than 200 dancers, many children, take classes at the Martell studio above Aladdin’s restaurant and Annabell’s bar between 4 and 11 p.m.

Many come after school and fan out across the neighborhood to eat dinner or buy something at a local shop, she said.

Last year Yunker started a sign-out sheet so she knows which students leave, what time and where they were headed.

Pitching in to hire off-duty police, who will often work when her business is closed, seemed like the right thing to do because of the ripple effect it could have for the community, she said.

Just the first step?

She’s already looking forward to what else Highland Square businesses can accomplish together.

Yunker said some of her students, particularly those who are high school age, would love to help beautify the area.

Swirsky said if the fledgling business collaboration works, it could be expanded — not only to include more hours covered by off-duty officers, but to other areas like volunteers serving as neighborhood ambassadors or business-sponsored festivals.

Nabors imagines Highland Square dotted with street musicians busking for change or “the kind of programming you might find at the pier on Key West” in Florida.

There, locals and tourists gather nightly to eat, drink and watch sword swallowers and other performers celebrating the beauty of another setting sun.

Amanda Garrett can be reached at 330-996-3725 or agarrett@thebeaconjournal.com.

Inside

■ Skullz Salon is coming to Highland Square this summer. Page B3