John Buntin Jr.'s hand disappeared into the ivy covering the wood-paneled building next door, like a comic book adventurer searching for a secret lever.

"There's a door in here somewhere, believe it or not," said Buntin, who deals in imagination as the proprietor of Kenmore Komics & Games on Kenmore Boulevard.

Buntin, now chair of the Kenmore Chamber of Commerce, opened his shop in 1987 when "The Boulevard" teemed with civic life and commercial activity, from a holiday festival in the now overgrown courtyard next to his shop to year-round foot traffic.

Since then, ivy and blight have spread. The view now, as in other neighborhood business strips across Akron, is of empty storefronts and faded facades.

But the Boulevard has come alive in the past two years with the sound of aluminum ladders clanking against old commercial rooftops. Empty shops are freshly painted. A coffee shop and diner are opening soon.

The Boulevard's business revival at the persistent nudging of the Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance has been fueled by public funding, another round of which was announced last week with a second annual round of Great Streets facade grant winners.

Kenmore is now home to 17 funded projects, more than in any of the Great Street business districts across Akron.

The facade grants of up to $30,000 per structure help commercial property owners with external renovations meant to attract customers. Most of the money this year will aid roof and parking lot work.

Buntin got a facade grant 15 years ago to fix up his comic shop and hang a Spider-Man sculpture from the wall over the courtyard near the sidewalk. Now, he plans to use the latest matching facade grant of $30,000 to remove ivy from the vacant building and courtyard, which he recently bought from the city for $10,000. He'll restore the wood-paneling, fix the roof and reclaim the overgrown courtyard between his comic shop and the old heating and cooling shop.

The courtyard's black gate entrance will be dismantled, sand-blasted and re-installed. Another gate will be erected in the back. Two new retaining walls will section off a courtyard furnished by outdoor patio furniture.

"This, to me, is going to be community property. Why not? It's a beautiful space," said Buntin, who plans to open the courtyard up during the day and use it for festivals and live music throughout the year.

Finally, when the inside is fixed in the coming years, Buntin will give the old vacant structure to the Kenmore Historical Society, of which he's a longtime member.

In all, the city awarded $387,096 in grants this year.

Not far from Buntin's comic shop, the owners of Etta Mae Smith Studio of Dance, The Freedom Tax Service and Pierre’s Brooklyn Pizza & Deli are each getting $20,000 to $30,000 for new roofs, doors, signage or awnings.

The LeBron James Family Foundation will get $30,000 for a basketball court outside the I Promise School on West Market Street.

Tedd Bare will put new windows and doors in a Goodyear Heights property anchored by the historic Linda Theatre. Bare said he's also privately funding a $145,000 marque upgrade at his Highland Square Theatre across town.

Bare now owns all but two churches in the row of Goodyear Boulevard businesses near Reservoir Park. He bought the Linda Theatre in 1974 when Akron's rubber factories still filled the city with residents and good-paying jobs.

"We’ll try to maintain it," Bare said of keeping the original look of the 1948 landmark. "And up above, I want to make sure that the neon is there. Lighting is so important to making a business district look interesting. And I think an attractive exterior draws people."

In the Merriman Valley:


Valley Dental Group will get $4,175 for a power-wash-and-paint job.
Valley Animal Hospital and Celebrity Pets will get $16,000 for a new parking lot.
The Merchant restaurant will get $5,546 to fix up a staff entrance in the rear and install new lighting out front for safety and aesthetics.
And the owner of three commercial buildings serving 12 businesses at 1660-1698 Merriman Road, including R. Shea Brewing, will get $30,000 for a new sidewalk and doors, three new signs and an outdoor patio for Los Girasoles Mexican Restaurant.

But the big winner this year is a $150,000 grant to help replace the roof and parking lot at Liberty Commons across the street on Weathervane Lane.

The complex of interlocking buildings, each awarded $30,000 toward the overall project, has drawn recent criticism for its concentration of nightclubs and bars. New owner Tony Jaber said he's not looking for more bars to fill the empty Lazy Gator or Brubaker's Pub. Instead, he's aiming for a Mediterranean restaurant, brew pub or boutique shopping experience that would attract more affluent residents or the 2 million people who visit the Cuyahoga Valley National Forest each year.

"We’re really trying to completely reinvent the Liberty Commons area, trying to get it back to what I remember in the late '80s and '90s," said Jaber, explaining his vision of "a restaurant row in the Valley."

"It was just a great little place. And it's kind of been forgotten," he said.

 

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