What does the economic version of change look like? Retail sales once fueled a booming Rolling Acres Mall, located at the southwestern edge of Akron. Then, the mall infamously fell into disrepair, becoming emblematic of the challenges facing this city and others its size. Now retail is coming back, albeit in a dramatically altered form. What practically everyone figured has been confirmed. Amazon will build a new fulfillment center on the site, the huge online retail operation projecting to add 1,500 jobs.
This is definitely something to cheer. If too much in time and resources can be devoted to attracting businesses when the focus of economic development belongs on bolstering companies already here, there is a place for chasing what makes sense. Or at least appearing intriguing to outsiders. Someone may bring a four-digit number of jobs.
Amazon doesn’t land anywhere. This site works because of the favorable logistics for the company, on smaller and larger scales, from the accessible interstates to bus routes facilitating the commute for many employees. That latter example points to the potential benefits for the surrounding area. Amazon pays a minimum wage of $15 per hour, plus health coverage, tuition reimbursement and paid family leave. City officials note that 40 percent of households in the nearby 44320 zip code earn less than $25,000 a year.
Thus, employment at Amazon may offer something better. It also presents the opening for workers to improve their skills, the tuition support proving more advantageous for the city and region if strong connections are made with Stark State College and the University of Akron.
More, the economic activity generated by the fulfillment center promises a ripple effect. How large? That is hard to say. Yet Amazon will set up in a part of town that has suffered through a period of setbacks. It needs the investment.
Amazon is no stranger to Ohio, the company having plowed roughly $5 billion into the state. The announcement of the Akron center was accompanied by word that a similar facility will be constructed near Toledo, the seventh and eighth here in total. The company also has gained a reputation for poor working conditions in some facilities, workers reporting high stress and an unrelenting pace.
In Minnesota, employees used the company’s recent Prime Day to protest their treatment. Such circumstances call for vigilance at the state and local levels. Amazon is pledging 2,500 new jobs in all. That doesn’t mean it gets a pass on the quality of its workplace, especially with the tax incentives (yet to be detailed for the Akron and Toledo projects) flowing its way.
No question, the Amazon arrival is a gain for the city, in a big way. What also deserves emphasis is that it is just part of an emerging and integrated economic development strategy involving the city, Summit County and the Greater Akron Chamber. Many parts are in motion, including the downtown makeover, the addition of residences there and elsewhere in the city, the attempt to enhance the neglected Summit Lake neighborhood, the revival of public spaces through art and improved city parks, the simple paving of city streets and greater attention to neighborhood business districts. What an advance it would be if UA and Kent State University could work more effectively together in areas of shared research.
The idea isn’t that the Akron area must turn into a small Seattle or Boston. Rather, the challenge is to become the best version of a mid-sized city on the rise, navigating better than most a tricky economic transition. The Amazon center is one piece. Now, many others, and even more significant, must fall into place.