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How Akron has changed in 25 years

5/27/2010 - West Side Leader
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By Dave Lieberth

Editor’s note: In honor of the West Side Leader’s 25th anniversary, we asked Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic’s office to submit a guest column about how Akron has changed in 25 years. Dave Lieberth, deputy mayor of administration/chief of staff for Plusquellic’s office, responded with the column below.

Akron has not only reinvented itself over 25 years, but has rebuilt itself.

In 1985, with the downtown O’Neil’s Department store hanging on by a thread, community leaders worried that Akron itself might soon be closed for business.

Today, Downtown Akron is the largest employment center and the largest entertainment center in Summit County and hosts 4 million visitors annually, in part due to a billion dollars of downtown investment over the past 23 years. New community investment has been due to the leadership of Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, who decided to take risks and aggressively pursue new jobs.

In 1985, Akron — like every other Midwest industrial city — was recovering from America’s last deep recession. Double-digit unemployment gave rise to the first use of the phrase “rust belt.” Akron qualified: In the 10 years before 1985, each of Akron’s rubber factories shuttered its manufacturing operations here — a loss of more than 30,000 jobs.

In 2010, Akron — like every other U.S. city — is trying to recover from America’s most recent recession, and double-digit unemployment continues to confound economists. The difference 25 years later is that Akron’s built-in resilience, buttressed by the mayor’s laser-like focus on job creation and development in diverse industries, has earned international recognition for Akron.

Twenty-five years ago this summer, Northern Ohio Live magazine devoted an entire issue to Akron. Newly elected Mayor Tom Sawyer and the Regional Development Board were writing a new gospel for the local economy built on “polymers” (which Sawyer had to explain to residents everywhere he went).

The 1985 article bragged about Akron landmarks: the grain silos of the Quaker Hilton, the YMCA’s new home at Canal Square and the venerable Diamond Grille and West Point Market.

While the city’s 1985 vision of “spanning the tracks” — converting the closed Polsky’s department store into a luxury hotel and convocation center — was never realized, then University of Akron (UA) President Bill Muse was forging a new relationship between downtown and the campus.

Today, UA President Luis Proenza has reinvented the university’s place in the community and built a billion dollar “Landscape for Learning” that has transformed the university neighborhood.

While the new “hardware” for the city has revitalized our appearance — Akron has “never looked better” according to historian George Knepper — the major “software” that has become the operating system for the community also was born 25 years ago and has infused Akron with new talent — Leadership Akron. (The 1985 magazine article introduced 40 people who were going to create Akron’s future. Intriguingly, not among them was Akron’s 36-year-old Council President Plusquellic.)

In 1985, the first class of 30 was graduating from the program. This year, as Class 26 gets started, Leadership Akron has identified and trained more than 700 new leaders who run virtually every cultural, social and civic group in the community.

The community leadership of 1985 was building a network of leaders to replace the “old guard,” and in the process gave the community the brainpower and infrastructure to reinvent Akron that continues today with the Biomedical Corridor and the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron, taking their places as building blocks for the next quarter-century.

Dave Lieberth has been a reporter, broadcaster, historian, documentary film producer and attorney and currently serves as Akron deputy mayor; in 1985, he was one of the 40 people profiled in Northern Ohio Live.

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