Last month we spent the day with about a dozen leaders who are newcomers to Akron in our insight:AKRON program (shorthand: LA:Insight). For the group, it’s a one-day crash course on Akron; and for us, it’s a daylong experiential focus group of fresh sets of eyes on Akron. Often, we hear the terms “live, work and play” to describe what defines a destination to live, but this group connected with one ingredient more: Akron as a compelling place to serve. As we explore below, the city provides a powerful live-work-play equation as a destination to live. But in a generation that puts a premium on purpose, Akron may have another secret weapon by adding serve to the live-work-play-serve calculation. LA:Insight has made many an executive thankful to call Akron their new hometown, and their observations may provide clues for making Akron a magnet for talent. Here are a few:
Live: A Summative Equation
Akron’s appeal is not as apparent as Chicago’s or San Francisco’s. We do not have an obvious amenity like a coastline, great weather, a huge downtown, or a mountain range. But while these advantages may make a destination a great place to visit, these same destinations are often overplayed as places to live. In actual experience, headaches like traffic jams and high cost-of-living dampen the luster of living in the nation’s most renowned places to visit. As for Akron, what makes it a compelling destination isn’t any one thing. It’s everything. It’s not just having a world-class Children’s Hospital; or one of the lowest cost-of-living indexes in the nation; or a rush minute instead of a rush hour; or a downtown that punches above its weight; and so on. It’s having all of these things in one easy-to-navigate welcoming city. We need a ground game to help talent of all ages see Akron through a different lens, and help them discover what’s hidden in plain sight.
Play: Parks & Trails as a Game-Changer in our Talent Strategy
The participants in LA:Insight started their day sharing what stood out to them as first impressions of the Akron area. Almost to a person, parks and trees were the watchwords. Most did not realize the extent that natural scenery would surround them in Akron, a place they might have stereotyped as a hardscrabble, industrial town.
A few weeks before, Leadership Akron Class 33 learned about the removal of dams on the Cuyahoga River that will make urban kayaking and rafting a viable proposition in the urban core. Combine this with the Cuyahoga Valley National Park’s East Rim mountain biking trail and a growing trail system off the spine of the Canalway, and suddenly Akron could become an “urban OhioPyle.” The combination of a cluster of outdoor adventures with a vibrant downtown can create a multifaceted appeal for visitors and incoming talent. It's the kind of thing that natioanl funders noted in choosing Akron as one of just a handful of cities to be selected for Reimagining The Civic Commons grants. From time to time, local officials have pushed to position Akron as “the doorstep to the Cuyahoga Valley National Park,” but it seems to have fallen short of a sustained focus. There may be room for a bigger play to brand Akron as a haven for those who prefer a “both-and” of outdoor adventure and urban vibrancy.
The other day I spoke to one of our graduates who is a bicycling enthusiast about whether Akron could position itself for outdoor adventurers the way Portland has on the west coast, and before I could finish my sentence he responded fervently: “Yes, absolutely.” There are some striking similarities among Portland and Akron. Like Akron, Portland has been described as “hard-edged and gritty,” having found its identity in timber and shipbuilding as Akron did in tires—that combination of industrial toughness and ingenuity. In the post-industrial era, Portland’s population, per capita GDP, and national rankings for bike-ability and parks surged, prompting cities from Minneapolis to Milwaukee to aspire for “Portland of the Midwest” status. Akron is not Portland any more than these other cities, and we cannot merely try to copycat other places. Yet with the combination of a National Park and Metro Parks all tied together with a Towpath Trail, our natural resources may be a game-changer in attracting and keeping talent.
Work: Ideas move to Reality
Akron is a place where entrepreneurs are empowered to convert their ideas into realities. This was the palpable confidence a group of entrepreneurs conveyed during LA:Insight as they explained why Akron is a great place to start or grow a business. Against the backdrop of WhiteSpace Creative’s new headquarters emerging just down the hill from Northside, Christina Gonzalez Alcala, co-owner of Not Yo Daddy’s Hot Sauce, noted the sense of mutual support that a groundswell of Akron entrepreneurs bring to one another. From Not Yo Daddy’s to Norka Beverage to Akron Honey Company to DesignFlux Technologies, and many more, Akron’s entrepreneurial scene is populated by kindred spirits who cheer and support each other’s success. Few of these are the high tech firms that often turn the heads of economic development gurus. But one or more of them may be the next Main Street Gourmet, or the next Hickory Harvest Foods, both of which employ hundreds right here in Akron.
This notion of turning ideas into reality carries over to developers like Joel Testa and Tony Troppe, both of whom have engaged in community-driven developments that integrate real estate development with urban placemaking. Their creations foster a city whose built environment seems to send the message that this is a place where ideas can become reality. The message hits home with those who fill their buildings, and turn their own ideas into new creations born in Akron. Watch the video that Torchbearers put together for incoming freshmen at UA about what makes Akron compelling, and you get the sense across all spheres of life that it’s a place that embraces those who put their ideas into action.
Serve: The Key Ingredient
The ability to put ideas into action carries over into community involvement, making Akron not only a great place to live, work and play, but also to serve. Most millennials – and probably everyone reading this – not only want a great place to live, work, and play, but also a great place to serve. In fact, over half of millennials report that the opportunity for community involvement influenced their decision about where to work. In Akron they come to appreciate that what makes Akron a great place to work also makes it a great place to serve: people come together across sectors to turn ideas for the greater good into reality. As our LA:Insight participants saw, sometimes this occurs as leaders come together to convert historic assets into future assets—like the Towpath Trail and the Civic Theatre. Sometimes, this happens when visionaries connect with resources from the Knight Foundation’s Arts/Cities Challenges to create the Rubber City Jazz Fest or to Unbox Akron. Sometimes, this occurs when leaders chase after their passions and collaborate with friends and organizations to bootstrap something new, like the Akron Children’s Museum.
To make this possible, we need a culture of service that makes room for everyone at the table. Thanks to programs and organizations like Leadership Akron, Torchbearers, Diversity on Board, and the Women’s Network CLI, Akron’s plug-in points for talent from all backgrounds are more and more plentiful for all. In the end, these opportunities create a win all the way around: a richer fabric of engagement that helps everyone see this community as their own (we tend to stay in places we feel belong to us), and readily get immersed making it better. Along the way, they bring new energy and perspectives that strengthen the efforts and organizations that they serve.
Akron may be well-advised to bypass notions of becoming the “Portland of the Midwest,” or other cities like Austin and Nashville that are commonly glorified as exemplars for talent and growth. Rather, we can use some of the same ingredients and add our own to create a uniquely Akron recipe that will have other cities seeking to emulate Akron’s model. After our LA:Insight program last month, the equation for Akron seemed to become clearer: a compelling ROI on quality of life/cost of living; a surprisingly strong mix of green infrastructure; a penchant for turning ideas into reality; and a culture of service that engages all. In other words: a compelling place to live, work, play, and serve.