Gerald Bailey said a miracle is unfolding outside Oinky’s Porch Chop Heaven southeast of Cleveland.

For years, Bailey watched unemployed people pass by the arched windows of his North Randall soul food restaurant in an old Taco Bell. Most were strolling aimlessly between a low-income apartment building and a corner store because they had nothing else to do, he said.

Now, Bailey sees many of those same people walking to work, wearing either an employee shirt from the nearby Jack Thistledown Racino or a yellow work vest from an Amazon fulfillment center that opened in October on the site of the former Randall Park Mall.

“I’ve been here for 30 years. I've seen a lot, I know a lot,” Bailey said this week. “To watch [this area] go all the way down and watch it come up — it’s not all the way, but it’s started — is truly amazing, a miracle you didn’t think could happen.”

The busy racino opened in 2013, saving the once-struggling Thistledown horse racetrack from possible closure. But Amazon has been the true game changer, Bailey and others in the business community say.

It’s not only the 2,000 jobs — which can swell to about 3,500 at holiday times — the e-commerce giant brought to the blighted area, or the influx of tax money that’s helped fix everything from North Randall’s police cars to potholes, they say.

But it’s the idea of being chosen by Amazon, he said, a company that’s building the nation’s work future for better or worse, and knowing Northeast Ohio is worthy and not being forgotten or entirely left behind.

Amazon, Bailey said, has brought hope.

 

Rebuilding itself

 

On Friday, the ribbon of Romig Road slicing through southwest Akron was dusty and looked a whole lot like most of downtown Akron this year: under construction.

As this Rust Belt city literally aims to rebuild itself for future generations — overhauling its downtown as a place officials hope people will want to live, work and play — preparations for an Amazon fulfillment center in the Kenmore neighborhood were underway Friday even though the project was only formally announced four days before.

Workers had torn up the east lanes of Romig Road while contractors had assembled a small village of work trailers across the street, moving around earth so a massive Amazon warehouse — and its 1,500 jobs — can rise where Rolling Acres Mall once stood.

What Amazon’s arrival in Akron will mean here beyond its own workforce isn’t entirely clear.

But some community leaders, business owners and politicians are already busy trying to figure out how to squeeze out all the potential benefits for Greater Akron.

Tina Boyas — executive director of the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to improving all aspects of life in the Akron neighborhood — said there are two angles.

“It’s wonderful to have that [former Rolling Acres Mall] area redeveloped. It’s been an eyesore for too long. And 1,500 jobs, that’s great, especially if we can employ our residents,” she said.

“On the other end,” she said, “it bolsters demand in our retail market.”

The heart of Kenmore along Kenmore Boulevard is about 2 miles from the Amazon warehouse. But Boyes is working with business owners there hoping they can cash in on the “Amazonians,” the nickname Amazon uses to describe its employees.

Boyes said 1,500 Amazon jobs — none of which pays less than $15 an hour, which is $6.45 an hour more than Ohio’s minimum wage — will boost the daily workforce in the neighborhood by 27 to 38 percent, based on private market analysis and U.S. census data.

“Pardon the pun, but people are hungry for retail establishments,” said Boyes, whose organization is supporting the launch of a new restaurant and the lone coffee shop on Kenmore Boulevard.

“Not everyone wants to go to Taco Bell,” she said. “Frankly, what I’ve seen from this type of development in other places is more fast-food places. [Kenmore Boulevard] can offer an alternative.”

Boyes, who grew up in Kenmore, concedes she is more optimistic than some who say Amazon is a small-business killer.

“So what does that mean for us?” Boyes said. “I’m personally looking at this as an opportunity. If I were Amazon, I would want to partner with a local community organization … to latch on to the work we’re doing here.”

 

Empty malls

 

Amazon chose to build its three largest fulfillment centers in Northeast Ohio on the sites of former malls: Rolling Acres, Randall Park and Euclid Square.

Each sits near interconnected freeways that stretch from Akron about 50 miles north to Euclid and once thrived as both symbols of retail modernity and middle-class wealth and stability.

Euclid City Council President Charlene Mancuso remembers those days.

“It had more shoe stores than any mall I knew,” she said. “Being a girl it was a big deal.”

By the 1990s, each mall was in a slow, painful decline driven by economics, changes in shopping habits and fear after fights, shootings or fires on the properties.

And by the 2000s, the malls were largely empty, abandoned places where photographers went to document the decay of the Rust Belt.

Euclid held on longest. In 2016 the city’s fire and building departments determined the mammoth structure was too far gone to save after a failed revival as an outlet center.—

Mancuso said it was the state that first approached Euclid in 2017 with the idea of an Amazon fulfillment center.

Mancuso said the transformation was swift.

“We passed the legislation on a Monday night and by 6 a.m. Tuesday they had already put up a fence around the old mall,” she said. “I drove by and was like, ‘wow,’ these boys really know how to do this. And it has been like a full-court press ever since.”

Amazon announced in September 2017 it was coming to Euclid and the phones at City Hall began ringing, said Jonathan Holody, the city’s director of planning and development.

Some were businesses that already worked with Amazon and others that did not, but they wanted to locate in Euclid, he said.

“We are definitely seeing an increase in real estate transactions,” he said.

Construction of the distribution center is about 99 percent complete, and Amazon delivery trucks and vehicles of just about every shape and size are already coming and going, he said.

Growth is also extending into Euclid’s neighborhoods — some of which were ravaged by the mortgage and financial crises that hit around 2008.

Homes are selling again, and the values in Euclid have seen a three-year growth. Mancuso said there are even new homes being built, some on the vacant lots of homes that were condemned.

None of it happened until Amazon arrived, she said.

“This shows that ripple effect really does occur,” Mancuso said. “I think Akron is in for some really good things.”

 

Jobs for locals

 

Akron Councilman Mike Freeman, who represents Ward 9, including Kenmore, said last week his short-term focus is the 1,500 Amazon jobs coming to Akron and making sure Akronites are ready for the opportunities.

He is encouraging city administrators to prepare local high school and college students and even retirees for positions at Amazon.

In Cuyahoga County, officials familiar with Amazon hiring say applicants must be 18 years old, have a high school diploma or the equivalent and pass a drug-screening test.

Freeman said some of his relatives are working two or three jobs and could benefit from a single Amazon warehouse job that includes health care insurance and paid family leave (or tuition reimbursement for younger workers).

Akron residents likely will be competing for jobs against those who not only live outside the city, but also outside Summit County.

“What can we do to prepare Akron residents to get these jobs?” Freeman asked. “What can we do right now to prepare the best-qualified candidates, and I know they’re not the best-skilled jobs, but there are things we can do” to move locals to the front of the hiring line, he said.

Existing area businesses that could benefit from Amazon are not certain what the fulfillment center might mean for them.

Leaders at Akron’s two airports said they don’t know whether they’ll see more air traffic.

Local delivery services FedEx and UPS this week declined to directly comment on whether they buy new trucks or hire more local drivers.

But Michael Grossman, president and chief executive officer of cargo carrier Castle Aviation at Akron-Canton Airport, said Amazon could boost smaller carriers like his, which he calls “feeders.”

“We’re the biggest freight operator in Northeast Ohio,” he said.

Amazon is already building a major air cargo hub in Cincinnati that will use large jets to drop off and pick up merchandise, Grossman said.

“There has been a lot of talk” about that hub, he said.

But not mentioned as often is how that big hub should generate more business for smaller air cargo carriers, he said.

Castle Aviation is in the middle a $5 million consolidation and expansion at Akron-Canton Airport that includes building a 50,000-square-foot hangar at the site of the former 356th Fighter Group restaurant and adding larger planes that can carry more cargo.

None of Castle’s growth is connected to Amazon — yet, he said. Castle carries a lot of items for Purolator, a large Canadian shipping company, Grossman said.

“Sooner or later [Amazon] will start reaching out to the feeder groups like us,” Grossman said. “I’ll be happy if Amazon calls me. I’m game.”

 

Slow growth

 

“Oink, oink,” Gerald Bailey said last week, welcoming customers to his Pork Chop Heaven with his standard greeting.

A banner on his restaurant’s website specifically welcomes Amazon employees to Oinky’s. But Bailey said he’s seen no uptick in business since the fulfillment center opened about a block away.

“They pay them good, but they work them hard,” he said.

Amazon employees who do stop in to Oinky’s have told him there’s no time for lunch breaks.

“It takes them 5 to 7 minutes just to walk to their cars,” Bailey said.

And they can’t phone ahead with an order, he said, because Amazon makes its employees lock their phones in lockers before heading onto the warehouse floor.

Yet Bailey makes clear that he has zero animosity for his new Amazon neighbors and said he and the whole community have benefited from Amazon in other ways.

The streets are marked with fresh paint showing people where their lanes begin and end.

New security cameras are helping police keeps tabs on the area.

And a former boarded-up hotel tower once owned by the Maharishi — the international yogi who developed transcendental meditation — near the Amazon property has finally been demolished after sitting idle since at least 1996.

What’s being built in its place isn’t yet clear.

Steve Petti, who leads the Warrensville Heights Area Chamber of Commerce — which includes North Randall — said that Amazon instantly rebranded the area.

“The Amazon building has already become an icon,” he said last week. “You can't help but see it. It's visual proof of change that extends beyond North Randall’s borders.”

Petti said he doesn’t have numbers yet to show how area businesses have been impacted by Amazon, but said he anticipates slow, steady growth emanating from Amazon for years to come.

“There's so much hope,” Petti said, pausing. “I don’t know if there’s a better business word for “hope,” but that’s what it is. Amazon has brought hope.”