Post-Industrial Ohio City Faces Challenges, New Opportunities (2/17/16)

February 17, 2016 - Akron, Ohio – A new report released today by the Greater Ohio Policy Center finds that Akron, Ohio faces serious economic and demographic challenges but is well-positioned to confront them. Similar to other post-industrial cities in Ohio contending with long-term population decline and the loss of large-scale manufacturing, the report suggests that Akron’s ability to compete for jobs and residents will depend on strong, collaborative leadership and creativity in confronting difficulties.
Supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the report, titled the “62.4 Report” in reference to the city’s size in square miles, compares Akron’s performance on indicators of urban health and competitiveness to five peer cities in the Midwest and Northeast – Erie, Penn.; Fort Wayne, Ind.; Hamilton, Ohio; Syracuse, N.Y.; and Worcester, Mass. In the past, experts have noted that Akron has outperformed similar cities in weathering the decline in its manufacturing base, but the report finds that more recently Akron’s economic progress has not kept pace with similar mid-sized, postindustrial cities.
“The findings in this report are relevant for many medium-sized Ohio cities – such as Youngstown, Dayton and Toledo - that are struggling to overcome similar economic challenges.” said Lavea Brachman, executive director of Greater Ohio Policy Center. “In many instances, the same strategies recommended in this report for Akron are a blueprint for action in these other places to get them back on the right track.”
Key findings include:

  • Data analysis looking at trends from 2000 to 2013 showed a troubling decline in the economic health of Akron residents across a number of indicators, including income, employment, poverty and educational attainment. Regional leaders recognize the importance of reversing this trend and have launched a number of programs focused on reducing poverty.
  • The city is facing a “skills gap.” Many Akron residents require additional training to be able to take advantage of new job opportunities in health care, education, and advanced manufacturing. Although promising initiatives are underway to address this issue, other challenges, such as regionally dispersed job opportunities, make accessing employment challenging for transit-dependent Akron residents.
  • Akron’s neighborhoods are still contending with the double blow of declining population and the mortgage foreclosure crisis. Beyond the challenges of long-term vacant housing, a portion of the available housing stock is in disrepair or is ill-suited to the size and lifestyles of middle-class families that the city hopes to attract.
  • Akron has seen little population growth among young professionals and immigrants, two key demographics that affect the shape of the city’s future growth. Despite this fact, young professionals have recently had outsized impacts on civic leadership, and the city’s North Hill neighborhood has gained national attention for its diverse immigrant population.

The report also highlights that the resignation of Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic in 2015 signaled the end of a long tenure of political and civic leadership. This transition opens an important opportunity to consider next steps in shaping Akron’s future economic and civic health and the role the city’s leadership will play in advancing its growth.
The report provides a series of recommendations for how the city can improve its trajectory. Recommendations are based on Greater Ohio Policy Center’s research into small- and medium-sized legacy cities. They are illustrated with case studies from these cities, highlighting how successfully strategies were put in place. Many of these recommendations are also applicable to other small- and medium-sized cities in Ohio seeking to stabilize and regain a competitive edge.
Recommendations include:

  • Foster good leadership: Strategically develop, attract, and retain local leadership.
  • Forge connections across sectors: Increase coordination to maximize the benefits of public and private investment.
  • Develop core city vibrancy: Focus on downtown and the city of Akron as the key sites for regional economic development
  • Cultivate existing talent: Invest in Akron’s current residents, including low-income workers and families
  • Encourage urban development: Expand local housing through strategic government intervention.