The formation of University Park Alliance in Akron led to the creation of a group called Neighborhood Network that meets and holds block parties, children’s events and programs on subjects such as gardening and small-business advice.
The subgroup’s leaders say that no matter what becomes of UPA — now working through a financial and leadership reorganization — the 2-year-old Neighborhood Network will continue.
UPA is a nonprofit formed through a partnership of government and business and community leaders to work on redevelopment of 50 city blocks around the university.
Neighborhood Network consists of about 60 to 80 people who work on various projects year-round.
• One Family Under Guard Outreach Ministries filled a bus with school supplies this fall and distributed the goods to children at seven Akron schools.
• A neighborhood block party was sponsored by Family of Faith United Methodist Church, The Chapel and neighborhood residents of the Jewett Street area. The event attracted 100 neighbors who spent an afternoon having a meal with inflatables and games available for children.
• Living The Legacy, a ministry of First Congregational Church’s garden club, collaborated with Harvest Home, the women’s division of the downtown Haven of Rest organization, on gardening and small-business skills.
• The Grace Park Picnic attracted 1,200 people in August. Orchestrated by Open Door Assembly of God with the help of community residents, local churches, the Akron-Canton Regional Foodbank and local businesses, it put on a giveaway of thousands of goods, food and school supplies.
• And on Saturday, members of the Bettie Street Block Watch Club and local businesses sponsored a trick-or-treat event for 400 children at the Mason Park Community Center.
The recent news of UPA’s leadership and financial problems was devastating to Fran Sutter and Barb Pennington, best friends and neighbors in the Upson Street area.
About a year and a half ago, Sutter’s home was one of eight on Upson Street rehabilitated with $190,000 in funds from UPA with the help of two programs called Rebuilding Together and LINKS ministry.
Sutter estimates her home received $40,000 in needed renovations, including new siding, windows, a porch, furnace and railings for steps.
Pennington’s home around the corner was to be among UPA’s rehabilitation projects next year.
However, UPA is now involved in lawsuits over real estate deals and must reapply for a funding grant from the Knight Foundation after losing $7.8 million in a grant and loan awarded earlier. UPA has only one employee, a secretary, and only has funds for operations through the end of 2013.
But, Sutter and Pennington and others say, no matter what UPA does or doesn’t do, people in the affected neighborhoods still credit the organization with bringing passionate volunteers together and making a difference.
The loss of funds and staff at UPA this spring and summer included services from Round River Consulting, the Akron firm that has guided the Neighborhood Network projects. But the community group is continuing, said Pastor Ron Shultz of Family of Faith United Methodist.
Shultz said initially there was shock and disappointment upon learning what had happened to UPA.
But, he said, Neighborhood Network realized that UPA “had accomplished what it wanted to accomplish. They wanted us to be able to stand up on our own and to be able to take initiative in the community. We were strong enough that no matter what was going on in the big picture, we were not going to fall apart.”
The network group’s leaders say they are forming a team to develop its own vision and eventually seek its own funding by applying for grants.
United Way steps in
United Way of Summit County has agreed to serve as the fiscal agent. That means Neighborhood Network will not need to form a 501(c)(3) organization. Any future funds it is awarded can be handled by the United Way.
United Way directors last week awarded $30,000 in what was called “gap funding” to projects for Neighborhood Network. Donae Ceja, senior vice president of community impact for the United Way, said it is not unusual to take on a fiscal officer role or make an award.
But, she added, it was unusual to take such quick action. The board did so recognizing the severity of UPA’s situation and because United Way believes Neighborhood Network is “some of the most effective work we’ve been involved with,” Ceja said.
The money will be used to pay for continued work by Round River Consulting and to help the group seek other money. “We’re providing a basis for them to leverage more funding,” Ceja said.
Shultz said while United Way’s support is worth celebrating, it should not be perceived that Neighborhood Network is abandoning UPA.
“We’re thankful they [UPA] brought us together. We are not trying to run from them. We just understand that they can’t walk with us right now. … We’re looking at growing. We have specific plans. If they are able to get through this and get solvent again … we’d love to walk with them again,” he said.
David James, Akron Public Schools superintendent and UPA board chairman, said UPA leaders knew of Neighborhood Network’s programs and are happy that group is staying active.
James said UPA didn’t run the Neighborhood Network, but supported their meetings and was a partner at events.
Thankful for UPA
Akron Community Oriented Police Officer Michael Gould Sr., whose beat for 10 of his 20 years on the force has included the Middlebury neighborhood of Akron, said he’s seen the effects of the group.
“It was so empowering to bring those leaders together. It became a driving force that they’re going to do something. You can serve a lot of people when you’ve got committed people,” said Gould.
Sue Lacy, a partner with Round River Consulting, said Neighborhood Network meetings from the beginning were “very special. There’s just an energy and a spirit that’s alive and well.
“The leaders of the Neighborhood Network are building upon existing strengths to create a sense of community; to establish safe, welcoming streets, to lift up the economic well-being of University Park families. That’s the bottom line of why people are so passionate,” Lacy said.
Round River pulled back on its work with Neighborhood Network when UPA was unable to pay its bills. Round River staff continued in some areas — without pay — because they felt the work was too important, she said.
“The true test of whether or not we’ve been successful is what happens when you’re not there,” she said.
Yolanda Parker, co-pastor of Open Door Assembly of God with her husband, Francel, said the neighborhood group is thankful for the effort that UPA started. “If they could get back to the root of what they were doing, it would be awesome, with the sidekick of [economic] development,” she said.
The work of the Neighborhood Network has “snowballed” and needs to move forward, said Pastor Eula Greer of One Family Under Guard Outreach Ministries.
“Everybody has problems. Some people have too many problems to keep going and they have to come back and revamp. But I’m grateful for what [UPA] did and how they started us off and brought us together. They’ve done some good things,” said Greer.
Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blinfisher .