Copley Road through Maple Valley has more businesses in 1,000 feet than just about anywhere in Akron.

Not far from Interstate 77, there are two pharmacies, a grocer, three corner stores, a cellphone carrier, a sandwich deli, pizza shop, drive thru, liquor store and multiple beauty salons and barber shops. Except for the Save-A-Lot and Walgreens, most are mom-and-pop shops like Gino's Pizza, serving heavy road traffic and a thicket of surrounding West Akron homes.

It’s here — between the traffic lights at Frederick Boulevard (don’t look for a city street sign, it’s not there) and South Hawkins Avenue — that community-minded groups are channeling a local vision for a better business district. Having done the same in North Hill, Middlebury and Kenmore, the Knight Foundation is committing $73,600 this year to collect and test community-sourced ideas for supporting retailers and customers in Maple Valley.

Better Block Copley Road will be steered by Progressive Alliance Community Development Corp. of West Akron and Evis “EJ” Brinson with Summit County Think Tank Coalition. The effort culminates May 24-25, when community solutions for economic revival — maybe filling empty stores or installing sidewalk cafes — will be test-piloted in a weekend for residents and shop owners to see what could be.

“The Better Blocks are effective because they are of the community, by the community and for the community,” said Kyle Kutuchief, Akron program director for the Knight Foundation. “They are unique to each neighborhood and it is key that each neighborhood is a part of the process.”

“I think what’s important to me about the Better Block initiative is that people in that community can be heard, that their voices can be turned into action by deciding what type of businesses they like to see and how spaces in their neighborhood can be used," said Brinson.

A three-month listening process starts 6 p.m. Friday at Buchtel High School. Attendees will hear more about what to expect from Jason Roberts, founding director of the Better Block, which has worked with Cuyahoga Falls, Barberton and Euclid.

Before they can get down to business, though, coordinators are sure to get an earful about the crime that drives away customers. Many of those mom-and-pop shops deadbolt their doors during the day. Some shutter the windows at night.

Safety first

“It’s best to keep the doors locked,” said Latrina Young, the owner of Gifted By His Grace beauty and hair salon. “Someone will run up in here and take all the women’s purses.”

Young’s shop on Frederick Boulevard looks out at the Save-A-Lot grocery store, whose parking lot gives her business some exposure. Across the street, she couldn’t tell you what’s in all the tiny storefronts smashed into a series of shopping plazas with no main signs inviting motorists to pull in.

That, along with the need for better-maintained landscaping, roads and sidewalks, concerns Young. But her top concern is safety. And she’s not alone.

In Simone’s Beauty & Health Boutique next door, Ophelia Averitt was assaulted before noon by a thief three years ago in her shop.

Yes, she agrees that Maple Valley needs a doctor’s office or something like the Dairy Queen that closed or any of the family-style restaurants, women’s dress and boutique shops or the haberdashery of years gone by. But first, the former head of the Akron NAACP wants the police to open an outpost, a permanent presence watching over her and her customers.

“That would be the first thing that I would like to see coming in there. Because that would tell people we will have a safer community,” said Averitt, who closed her shop this week for the cold weather. “And we need our block clubs up and going. The block clubs know more about what’s going on in those neighborhoods than you or I.”

Young seconds that notion. A block club of local business owners could look out for each other and pull their resources together to quash any problems. She thought back to a rash of shootings and crime at the Open Pantry beyond the high school, past the Copley Road Better Block area. The community came together when enough was enough. Their collective voice resulted in 24-hour police coverage and no loitering signage.

“It really cut down on the crime,” said Young, who has run her hair salon for five years across the street from two others, which also lock their doors.

Better lighting and more cameras could mean better business, said Young, who added that she's never heard of the city of Akron's Great Streets Initiative, which provides shops in Maple Valley and nine other neighborhood business districts access to forgivable grants and loans.

Reach Doug Livingston at dlivingston@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3792.