When Brenda and William Hunt opened Ohio Color Plate at 601 E. Tallmadge Ave. in North Akron, they were starting a company to someday give their grandchildren.

Three sons, a niece and two in-laws worked there. It was a family business on an industrial corridor of Akron once filled with mom-and-pop shops.

That was 1995. By 2000, the Hunts had taken on $300,000 in business loans from FirstMerit and lost their first major client, a container maker in Solon that paid $1 million annually for industrial printing. In 2001, Hiney Printing, which accounted for 45 percent of what business remained, decided to do the work in house.

The Hunts transferred their employees — and their family — to Hiney where "they'd have good-paying union jobs," said Brenda, 69, who proudly took a job as the oldest worker at a local discount store.

"I loved every minute of it," she said, pushed around in a wheelchair by her husband while meeting a reporter last week at the old Tallmadge Avenue business. William, who is 70 and retired in December from Davis Printing in Barberton, wore an old colored shirt with an Ohio Color Plate logo. He worked for Hiney until 2010, when it too went out of business.

What happened to the Hunts happened to hundreds of small businesses across Akron. Now, they litter old rows of commercial and industrial buildings, flummoxing city officials inundated with complaints of blight, crime, squatters, rodents and other distressful signs.

 

"The building is being reclaimed in rapid fashion," John Eaton said, looking at trees and bushes wrapping the old Tallmadge Avenue shop while giving a reporter a tour of sites on the city's Vacant Building Registry. The year-old program, a variation of what more than 500 American cities are trying to do, inventories empty businesses and requires their owners to repair and refill them, or pay when they're torn down.

Eaton first inspected 601 E. Tallmadge Ave. in 2004 as a code compliance officer for the city of Akron. He retired and has returned on a part-time basis to run the Vacant Building Registry program.

A public commission overseeing the registry program put a notice in the newspaper last month. After 30 days, the Hunts' old business is now queued up for demolition.

But the Hunts do not intend to pay for the demolition. They gave the keys to the bank 15 years ago during a foreclosure then filed bankruptcy and walked away. But the bank, which never took over the deed, couldn't sell it at public auction, even after slashing the price on the $450,000 asset down to $100,000. The back taxes were worth more than that by the time the Hunts were given back the keys.

At the going demolition rate of $3.50 per foot, which is what the Summit County Land Bank has been paying, it'll cost $40,000 (not including any asbestos abatement) to raze the moldy building. For the other 1.5 million square feet of empty businesses on the registry, non-asbestos related demolition could exceed $5 million if the buildings aren't filled.

The city has set aside $500,000 for commercial demolition, targeting smaller structures on the registry to spread the money as broadly as possible. Every neighborhood has a few buildings beyond repair, especially on small business corridors like Grant Street, Copley Road, Thornton Avenue, Newton Street, West Exchange Street, Kenmore Boulevard, North Main Street, Tallmadge Avenue and Cuyahoga Falls Avenue.

Property owners for about 100 of the nearly 200 properties on the registry provided the city with plans for the vacancies. Fifty are having a tough time renting, selling or keeping tenants. They routinely blame vacancies on business closings.

Of 19 promising repairs, only six give dates to complete the work. Five are being used for storage and only two owners say a lease or sale is imminent.

The VBR program has so far ripped down three tax-delinquent buildings: a retail store on West Wilbeth Road in Kenmore, a foreclosed barbecue kitchen on Copley Road in Maple Valley and an office/apartment building on Johnston Street in Middlebury.

The Hunts' old business, with $378,445 in back taxes and fees, is among 10 in the queue for demolition. But it's big at 10,844 square feet and must get in line behind demolitions the city has prioritized for future development, like the old International Institute of Akron and Simon Perkins Middle School.

There is talk of state aid for the commercial demolition.

House Bill 252 offered by Rep. Dave Greenspan of Westlake and co-sponsored by Rep. Anthony Devitis of Green would create a Land Reutilization Demolition Program spending $100 million over the next two years to deconstruct these and other distressed, non-residential properties across Ohio. Summit County Land Bank Executive Director Patrick Bravo testified on the effort this month before the Economic and Workforce Development Committee, where the bill awaits a procedural vote to reach the House floor.

The creation of the Summit County Land Bank in 2012 has channeled $20 million to tear down 1,600 homes in Akron, including three that contained human remains. State and federal funds flowing through the city or the land bank are typically restricted to residential demolition.

"Unfortunately, where we have fallen short is supporting local communities in addressing abandoned and blighted commercial and industrial property that is driving down property values, encouraging further disinvestment in neighborhoods and communities, facilitating criminal activity and impacting public health in ways known, and unknown," Bravo told the House committee.

 

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