Akron’s 191-year-old story is stuck.



It hovers somewhere between the city’s latest chapter closing — Cleveland Clinic’s takeover of Akron General, the looming sale of FirstMerit, the departure of Mayor Don Plusquellic after 28 years — and its next chapter unfolding.



As longtime residents pine for the old touchstones that always made Akron home, Generation X and millennials are dreaming about the future Akron, a renewed urban oasis they hope to build for themselves.



“It just feels like everything is slipping away,” said Julie Leeser, 71, a baby boomer who has spent all but six years of her life in Akron. “Things you counted on, things you thought were rock solid, are going away.”



Yet the flip side of that change is opportunity, some say.



“We’re reinventing ourselves,” said Nolan James, 29, a millennial who grew up in Cleveland and lives in Kenmore.



“The icons, the symbols of Akron, don’t matter as much,” he said. “I don’t care about Archie the Snowman. It’s the people of Akron and we are still here and we can get things done.”



Truth resonates in both views of recent Akron change, said David Lieberth, a former reporter, lawyer, city hall insider and local historian.



“This does mark a moment in Akron history when we’re all feeling a sense of loss,” he said.



But a longer view of time shows Akron has overcome challenges before, he said, whether it was losing the clay products industry or tire factories.



“We’ve always been able to adapt,” Lieberth said, “to see opportunities, to move forward.”



This is a glimpse into some of the hopes and fears of Akron residents and leaders last week as they all searched for a way forward after they learned FirstMerit would likely be no more.



Where old meets new



On the northern edge of downtown, where Furnace Street zags under a railroad bridge before spilling out near the Little Cuyahoga River, there’s a forgotten plot of Akron history that some say holds a lesson for the city’s future.



Only a foundation remains. It was the base of a small tire- recycling business owned by Herman Muehlstein in the early 1900s.



When Muehlstein’s business burned around 1920, he asked the community to help him rebuild, but it declined, said Keeven White, whose company is renovating another former factory building on the property to use as office space.



“Making tires was the sexy thing at the time — like tech is sexy now — not recycling them,” White said.



With no incentive to stay in Akron, Muehlstein moved to the East Coast, where his humble recycling business grew into a global polymer distribution group that did $1 billion in annual sales.



The Muehlstein story is a sort of nonfiction parable Akron could learn from, White said.



In the past, when a large company was leaving, people often hoped Akron would find a big company to replace it.



“That’s not the answer,” White said last week. “If you want to replace 200 jobs, plant seeds with a 20-person company that will hopefully grow. Find people who already want to be here.”



White, founder of WhiteSpace Creative, is voluntarily leading a group working to rebrand downtown Akron through the Downtown Akron Partnership.



He’s formed focus groups of leaders and creative types who are trying to hone in on what Akron represents now, and what they hope it represents in the future.



Words like “grit” and “authentic” often come up.



“So does ‘tough,’ or having the ability to bounce back, or hard-working,” said Suzie Graham, president and CEO of Downtown Akron Partnership. “Much of that is because Akron is built on the working-class shoulders of the rubber industry.”



Now, she said, that tradition has merged with young leaders.



“It’s created a new energy,” Graham said. “They’re dreaming big about Akron, and they know how they can get things done. That has everyone excited.”



Concerned for future



Joshua Leeser is a proud Akronite who has lived in North Hill and Firestone Park and Ellet, intentionally never making his home beyond the city limits even after marrying and having four children.



He is the same age as Suzie Graham — 42 — but shares none of her optimism.



While his 71-year-old mother, Julie Leeser, fears the icons of her life in Akron are disappearing, Leeser fears something worse.



“For the first time, I feel like Akron is in a downward spiral,” he said.



News that FirstMerit was being sold is devastating, he said.



Meanwhile, he said he’s watched crime go up in some neighborhoods. And in less than two years, two of the Akron mortgage companies Leeser worked for closed their brick-and-mortar operations and moved their businesses online.



Leeser said he’s never had trouble finding new jobs in the mortgage business, but he worries how others are going to survive in the changing landscape.



“Not every student coming out of [the University of Akron] or an Akron high school is going to be an engineer,” he said. “What is going to happen to them?”



He said grocery employees are losing jobs because people order weekly supplies online. Mom-and-pop storefronts open and close in less than a year because they don’t know how to compete in an online world.



Even Macy’s at Chapel Hill Mall, the store where Leeser worked when he was in college, is scheduled to close.



“I saw the revitalization of downtown [Akron] and it was wonderful,” Leeser said. “But what about jobs? I’d hate to see us go the direction of Youngstown.”



Another world



Youngstown is only a 48-minute drive from Akron, but it’s another world, said Raymond Cox, a professor of public administration and urban studies at the University of Akron.



Akron has a different history, a different mindset and a set of built-in economic strengths that will help steady it, even during periods of uncertainty, he said.



“Akron always assumed that good times would end,” Cox said last week. “So people who live here always assumed they would have to do something else.”



Even during the 1980s, when the tire factories were closing and Akron lost 70,000 jobs — 50 percent of its employment — there wasn’t panic.



“People just said we’re going to roll with it,” Cox said. “If Akron was Youngstown, they’d still be calling Japan seeking a factory.”



Instead, Akron is trying to open its next chapter itself.



For some, there will be bad news.



Chapel Hill Mall will die, he said — not because it’s in Akron, but because malls of that style are out of fashion and withering across the nation.



The sale of FirstMerit will hurt, too, particularly in the area of philanthropy.



“Because it was homegrown, FirstMerit looked to Akron first,” Cox said.



Columbus-based Huntington Bank, which is gobbling up FirstMerit, doesn’t have that connection.



Yet as Akron works on opening its next chapter, Cox said it has economic anchors that will help support it:



•?Summa Akron City and Akron Children’s hospitals and Akron General, whose future was stabilized last year when the Cleveland Clinic took over full ownership.



•The University of Akron, transformed from a commuter school to an appealing urban campus with about 18 Ph.D. programs.



•?Akron, as the Summit County seat of government, has a broad base of city, county government jobs, along with a federal courthouse and state agency offices.



•?The polymer industry spins off white-collar research and development jobs.



“My takeaway from all of this is Akron will survive,” Cox said, “simply because that’s what we do.”



Main and Market



The intersection of Main and Market streets downtown is dedicated to jazz.



Developer Tony Troppe opened BLU Jazz+ music club in 2014. And by the end of this year, he plans to open Blutique, a jazz-themed hotel with 65 rooms in the United Building.



“Jazz represents Akron,” Troppe said. “It’s got edge, but it’s smooth.”



Troppe is adding kitchens to some of the rooms in his hotel for extended stays.



“I’m very interested in having places for people to stay downtown, whether it’s overnight, for a week to see if they’d like to open a business here, or for a year,” he said.



Downtown housing is a theme in Akron’s next chapter.



The Downtown Akron Partnership said it’s essential. The more people live downtown, the more businesses will bring jobs there.



Akron historian Lieberth said the city is playing catch-up.



Young people across the country — including his own children — are increasingly shunning the solitude of a suburbia.



They crave the energy that only densely populated urban areas can provide.



As mayor, Plusquellic missed that trend, largely because he was focused on jobs and stabilizing the city’s tax base, Lieberth said.



But Troppe and several others interviewed for this story said Plusquellic laid the foundation downtown to make it happen.



“Young people are not tainted by preconceived notions of what Grandma’s Akron was,” Troppe said.



Millennial Nolan James is among them. He never inhaled the smell of burning rubber at Akron’s tire plants, or rode the wood-bottom escalator at Polsky’s downtown.



Yet James, who is director of admissions at the University of Akron Law School, where he earned his law degree, is running for Summit County Council because he sees Akron’s potential.



The 29-year-old lives with his family in Kenmore, where all his neighbors are in their 80s.



“Everything changes,” James said.



Some day, for example, James said he hopes to take his family to the Willis Tower in Chicago.



“Never heard of it?” he asked.



Until 2009, when a London insurance company bought the naming rights to the icon, it was the Sears Tower, renowned as one of the world’s tallest skyscrapers.



“Akron is changing,” James said. “But it’s not just Akron. Change is happening everywhere.”



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