Zac Kohl paid $4,500 for a condemned house on Jewett Street in Middlebury. That was back in 2012, when the poor Akron neighborhood had even fewer cheap and vacant houses than it does today.

But the Firestone High School graduate, recently married and wishing to start a family near the Presbyterian church he attended as a boy, saw potential in a community where others see ruin. So he dumped $55,000 into his new home.

Five years later, none of the eight homes he’s bought and remodeled since are worth what he’s put in them. But he doesn’t concern himself with short-term gains.

He’s building community.

With each labor of love, Kohl is converting blighted property into marketable housing, which he sells to people who want to be his neighbors, not to out-of-town landlords and speculators.

After reaching the personal limits of his credit, Kohl founded The Well Akron, a community development corporation in that former Presbyterian church on Market Street. There, he hopes to continue what he’s started, buying and fixing homes, but on a scale the size of his community, not just his street.

On Tuesday, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation awarded Kohl’s organization and others in Kenmore and North Akron with $240,000 each to help make their dreams come true. The $720,000 gift follows years of experimentation and observation in communities that the city considers on the tipping point between success and ruin.

“There’s a lot of need in these neighborhoods,” said Kyle Kutuchief, Akron program director for the Knight Foundation.

Building on vision

The planning began when the foundation gave $50,000 to host Better Block events, first in North Hill in 2015, then in Middlebury last year and finally Kenmore this month.

The events gave residents and local businesses the funds to build a community of their choosing, if only for a weekend. Bands were brought in. Pop-up businesses filled vacant buildings. Food trucks lined sidewalks. People gathered on benches. Streets were repainted to slow down traffic and encourage walking and biking.

The wellspring of community-building concepts “exceeded expectations,” Kutuchief said. And so the Knight Foundation moved forward Tuesday with the $240,000 grants for The Well CDC, the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance and the North Akron CDC.

“It’s not just about planning, anymore,” said Kutuchief. “It’s about action.”

Plan to action

Tina Boyes with the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance said the first step will be to create a community development corporation.

Once up and running, a community development corporation could advocate for local commerce and incentivize businesses to fill in the empty storefronts along Kenmore Boulevard, perhaps avoiding the loss of staple businesses like the recently closed Huntington Bank branch.

“We are a neighborhood with a lot of potential,” said Boyes. “We’re also one that, without the right kind of investment, could go either way. We want to be careful and do it right.”

North Akron CDC Director John Ughrin has engaged community partners, who say the money should be spent on “economic development, particularly entrepreneurship; beautification and the creation of ‘meeting spaces’ within the neighborhoods; and programming for both social and educational purposes.” Examples include benches or shade on vacant lots for the many pedestrians and bicyclists in North Hill; encouraging and supporting neighborhood partnerships with block parties or help seeking grants; or market tours to attract and inspire entrepreneurs.

“Wherever possible, we see ourselves as collaborators and partners with existing organizations and programs,” said Ughrin. “We feel it’s better to connect and facilitate, rather than duplicate efforts.”

Building community

Kohl and The Well CDC have the long-term goal of rehabbing 60 homes in five years. It’s an extension of what Kohl started five years ago when he used the equity in his home to get a line of credit to rehab the house next door, then the one next to it, and so on and so on.

Kohl advocated for the city to tear down two vacant homes on his street and ended up saving seven homes from falling into disrepair or the hands of someone who might put profits above community.

Eventually, he and his immediate neighbors ran out of resources. That’s why they started The Well CDC a year ago, to collaborate on state and national funding application and local efforts.

Kohl acknowledges the magnitude of the housing problem in Middlebury. To rehab one house each month, at about $50,000 apiece, he plans to hire a full-time employee at the CDC for two years to raise $2 million from private investors.

“And that’s just the tip of the spear,” Kohl said. “There’s 2,700 homes in Middlebury: only 32 percent are owner-occupied; 25 percent are vacant. We’re only scratching the surface.”

Kohl also plans to create a community toolshed and provide lessons on basic home repairs. He’s trying to form a local homeowners association to champion causes like holding landlords accountable.

In acknowledging that Middlebury, North Akron and Kenmore are at “a critical juncture between future development or current disinvestment,” Mayor Dan Horrigan said Community Development Block Grant Funding for demolition will be redirected to local community development corporations.

“This public funding, when leveraged with the Knight Foundation’s generous commitment, as well as future commitments from private sources, has the ability to truly build the capacity that our community needs to grow our population, rebuild our neighborhoods, and improve education, income, and health outcomes for all of our residents,” Horrigan said.

Reach Doug Livingston at 330-996-3792 or dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @ABJDoug on Twitter or www.facebook.com/doug.livingston.92 on Facebook.