Committed Akron Leaders Collaborate, Leveraging Akron’s Assets – Knight Foundation

Committed Akron Leaders Collaborate, Leveraging Akron’s Assets

Article from the Knight Foundation 2006 Annual Report

“It wasn’t a place that people took pride in,” says University of Akron President Luis Proenza. He’s talking about University Park, a downtown Akron neighborhood of 11,500 residents, home to blocks of blighted housing for some of the school’s 24,000 students. 

But like other urban centers in decline at the beginning of the new century, Akron had anchor institutions like the university and the local hospital, Summa Health Systems. And there was another, largely unaligned resource in town.

“You … have some very, very strategic thinkers, bold leaders, people who aren’t afraid to take risks,” says Ken Stapleton, executive director of the University Park Alliance, which began in 2000 with a bold idea to bring those leaders together to take charge of the community’s revitalization with seed funding from Knight Foundation.

Through the alliance, Proenza joined forces with other leaders — Akron’s 20-year mayor, Don Plusquellic; Thomas Strauss, head of Summa; the local chamber of commerce; the school board and the housing authority. A grassroots-up plan took shape to involve the community in the redevelopment of the 40-square-block neighborhood around the twin themes of lifelong health and lifelong learning.

“What we didn’t see was this beautiful flowering plant that was growing and prospering, sending out young people that were educated, and we weren’t really maximizing our ability to attract top young people because of the condition of the housing,” said Plusquellic.

With almost $3 million from Knight, the alliance’s initial collective efforts leveraged public-private investments of some $150 million in campus improvements, badly needed infrastructure and neighbor-hood redevelopment. Now, in a new round with investments including $10 million from Knight, the allies envision continued revitalization of the neighborhood to attract and keep talent and provide housing for a population intent on leading healthy, educated lives.

Public and private sector investments are approaching $500 million, bringing new green space, expansion of university facilities, 500 affordable, mixed-income housing units for university and hospital employees, new businesses including spaces for artists to live and work, all generating up to 1,000 new jobs.

Says Proenza: “We are impressed that developers have come to us and expressed an excitement that says ‘we’d rather be involved in this kind of activity than any other.’ They’re excited because it is transformational – it is an opportunity to have a true impact on their community.”

New partnerships are developing. The university started a tutoring program at nearby Leggett Elementary with more than 200 college students showing up each semester to help out. And the university’s new Student Recreation and Wellness Center is open to neighborhood residents.

Mayor Plusquellic:With a vision and a strong commitment to leadership, which I think this partnership with the support of Knight Foundation has done, and the money the city has committed … we have the makings to completely reinvent the image of that entire part of our city.”

“One day I’ll see my grandchildren walk in to the University of Akron,” says Vivian Celeste Neal, Knight’s Akron program director. “I will be in one of those mixed housing townhomes, walking to the stadium, walking to retail and still having lifelong learning activities. I’ll be able to do all my lap swimming, exercising, all right there. Then if I want to take a course, I’m on the college campus. It’s a way for everybody to win.” For further information