Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan rode a recent wave of good news into the John S. Knight Center, where he delivered his third State of the City speech on Wednesday.
The city’s housing market has awakened. Population decline has slowed. Budgeting remains tight, but a new tax is rebuilding police and fire stations and nearly tripling the resurfacing budget for pothole-ridden streets. And partnerships within the city and across the region are flourishing.
It’s what Horrigan and others call the “Akron renaissance.”
“There’s a spirit of hope that’s taken hold of our city in the past few years,” said Akron Children’s Hospital CEO Grace Wakulchik, who introduced Horrigan on Wednesday to a lunch crowd of about 1,000 people. “It’s a hometown approach.”
Horrigan briefed the public for about 40 minutes on how his residential tax abatement and other efforts have inspired developers to stake out 1,000 new housing units, mostly apartments in renovated downtown hotels. And he noted that the orange cones, which he said have usurped the University of Akron's Zippy as the city's new mascot, will disappear from Main Street when the downtown corridor project ends in 2020. Work begins on the northernmost section this year.
Horrigan dropped quite a few new proposals, many expected to develop over years as the the city, county and Greater Akron Chamber forge a streamlined economic development collaborative.
Inspired by thick snowfall that morning, Horrigan started his speech with an off-script joke. "Sorry we're a couple minutes late. I was in a plow truck this morning,” he said.
The crowd graciously laughed, remembering how Horrigan issued a public apology last month for poorly executing a snowplowing operation. “Sorry. Too soon?” he asked.
The mayor shared a series of new proposals centered on equitable growth by creating neighborhoods where people can walk to restaurants and stores, find jobs and new homes and maybe come back from the suburbs.
A downtown community development corporation will be formed to steer and attract investment. The city also will reallocate some of the $100,000 it pays the chamber for services each year to help pay for a new vice president of inclusion and opportunity, who will work at and answer to the chamber.
To reduce youth violence, Summit County Health Commissioner Donna Skoda will release an eight-point plan next month. The city has agreed to take on youth recreational opportunities, relationship building and gun safety under that plan.
For the recreational component, a new eight-week Midnight Basketball mentoring program will start in late spring or early summer at Mason Park. The program for 80 young men ages 16 to 33 aims to motivate and educate with the help of various community leaders and organizations.
For older residents, the mayor is adding Akron to the AARP Network of Age-Friendly States and Communities, which the senior association says includes “walkable streets, housing and transportation options, access to key services and opportunities for residents to participate in community activities.” Horrigan said the goal is to help Akron's seniors “stay in their neighborhoods and age in place.”
Horrigan also said the board of trustees for the University of Akron, Kent State and Northeast Ohio Medical University have agreed to meet with city, county and chamber officials already paired up through the Elevate Akron working group for economic development. They'll ask the universities, which are all searching for new presidents, to prioritize job innovation in choosing their next leaders.
Along with remodeling outdoor pools, which could take five years, the mayor again promised to build two splash pads this year, advancing the plans as going somewhere in North and East Akron.
And there were two proposals to take on blighted commercial properties.
This year, “at my direction, for the first time in recent memory,” Horrigan said he’ll budget more for commercial than residential demolition. Using the Vacant Building Registry created last year to hold absentee landlords accountable, $500,000 will go toward commercial and $400,000 toward residential demolition.
The mayor also announced a partnership with the Summit County Land Bank to list vacant or empty commercial properties online for developers to buy. The portal should be online later this year.
During a question-and-answer session at the end of his talk, someone asked bluntly if the mayor could put to bed speculation that Amazon is the developer promising 500 or more jobs at the old Rolling Acres Mall property. Horrigan quoted his favorite Oasis album title: “Definitely maybe.”
“We’re turning Akron’s largest piece of blight into a big investment,” he said.
When asked about recommendations coming from a council-appointed task force to examine what went wrong with the recent snowplowing effort, Horrigan said only that he’d follow their suggestions.
He took a softball about LeBron James, who he praised for “literally changing the face of this community” through his philanthropy. And he was questioned about homelessness, to which he replied that the city and county are flush with service providers and “we are always looking for new and innovative ways to take on the issues of Akron, and that includes homelessness.”
Sage Lewis, who’s suing Akron for shutting down his homeless tent city last year, said he’s “still processing that answer about being open to innovative homeless solutions.”
A private donor covered the cost for Lewis to take seven homeless and formerly homeless people to the luncheon speech. It was the first three-fork meal many of them ever had, Lewis joked.
Horrigan came over and shook Lewis’ hand before going onstage. “That was incredibly big of him, I thought,” Lewis said. “I think we still have a long way to go to find common ground on sheltering. But that's understandable. I'm incredibly interested in working with the city to solve homelessness in Akron. So anyway we can work together is amazing.”
Reach Doug Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3792.