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Knight Foundation philanthropy accelerates transformation in Akron

December 18th, 2012

By Eric Anthony Johnson

Today’s announcement of nearly $8 million in commitments from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to continue building Akron’s urban core marks an extraordinary moment for the city.

This new support builds on the momentum of the last two years, when the city leaders created a foundation for transformative revitalization of a 50-block area around The University of Akron.

In awarding this level of funding to University Park Alliance (UPA), the Knight Foundation not only validates, but champions UPA’s two-pronged development model.

The approach puts equal emphasis on redevelopment through capital improvement, and community civic engagement, which includes residents, businesses and property owners.

The Knight Foundation’s new round of support includes a $6 million grant to UPA over five years to meet goals that advance both civic life and residential and commercial development.

The foundation is also giving UPA a $1.8 million low-interest loan, which will support housing, retail and other business redevelopment in an area called University Square at East Exchange and Brown streets near UA. This low-interest loan is hugely important, because it provides the basis for a future revenue stream to perpetuate the work of UPA as a nonprofit community development corporation.

The University Square complex, estimated at $60 million to $70 million, will be the first project developed and owned by UPA.  For that reason, it is a linchpin of UPA’s master plan. In other alliance projects, private developers are the owners and they share a small percentage with UPA.

Needless to say, all who support the work of UPA are deeply grateful to the Knight Foundation for continued investment in the city, where the Knight brothers nurtured their first newspaper – the Akron Beacon Journal — into a national communications company.

It would be extremely difficult for a nonprofit organization such as UPA to carry out a project on the scale of University Square without significant support.

While Knight doesn’t typically invest in real estate projects, they are making an exception in this case because the foundation’s leaders see the value of the work being done in Akron and they see the potential future rewards.  Knight is helping us overcome a hurdle, so that the work of transforming Akron’s core can continue on a scale previously not seen.

This is indeed an exciting time for Akron, Ohio.  Subscribe to this blog to follow our progress.


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Collaboration at a Unique Level

July 17th, 2012

A guest entry by Gregory Milo, educator at Archbishop Hoban High School

Colleagues tell Cheryl Smith that she has a unique talent, an ability to spend time helping struggling entrepreneurs extract in an articulate way the ideas in their heads. She sees it as simply patience.

Cheryl’s Collaboration Station focuses on coaching people who come to her with an entrepreneurial idea. Their vision is fantastic, and their will is strong, but they might have difficulty articulating their business plan. Collaboration Station provides the clients with necessary business skills.

Cheryl sits down with each client and helps them transfer their brilliant idea onto paper in a way suitable for the professional world. It is a disciplined and persistent process. As a high school teacher, I recognize the sometimes exhausting practice breaking down students’ ideas in order to reestablish them into something with structure.

“You can’t just talk a good game,” Cheryl declares, “You have to take that talk and   put it on paper.” Through her business writing lab, Cheryl can help her clients build justification for their dreams. She admits that there is a of of hand-holding. Her clients’ learning curve is a lot bigger when it comes to making their business dream a reality. Her clients come from low to moderate income backgrounds. They might lack education. They might be trying to escape from a history of addiction or incarceration, but they all have great ideas and a will.

The process at Collaboration Station is a tedious, yet advantageous, one. Cheryl starts with one-on-one technical assistance, starting with assessing where a client is and then creating an individual development plan that addresses the action steps to take the client from the business plan to reality. It is a self-paced program that places the responsibility on the client. Whatever the background, Cheryl’s clients usually lack necessary tools, such as writing or business knowhow, but Cheryl can provide the tools.

Of course there is the altruistic want to help the “underdog,” as Cheryl admits, but she also understands the rational reason for her work, explaining at length the need for a place like Collaboration Station.

Cheryl energetically and with purpose reels off numerous facts and figures describing the overall economic benefit of providing people of low income backgrounds or ex-offenders with tools, such as education, that can allow them to compete as entrepreneurs.

As Cheryl writes grants and business plans she has to provide evidence of support, which leads to a lot of research, and it shows. She tells me how nearly 45% of small businesses are started nationally by people of low to modest income levels, and 8% of them are below poverty. She continues, “Small businesses create 53.1% of all jobs.”

“Can we address this?” she says with a laugh. “Why not give low income populations an opportunity to be a success? It would decrease the drain on the local economy and resources and increase the tax dollars.”

Cheryl has addressed the facts. She tells me of the man who wanted to take advantage of the foreclosure trend, and so he began taking pictures of properties for the banks to identify work that needed to be done. She tells me of the single mother who wanted to help other single mothers, and so she started her own nonprofit organization. There’s the woman with her own catering business. There’s the ex-offender who has started his own organization to help other ex-offenders. It’s a diverse list of success stories, but they all needed Collaboration Station to get their jump start. To accomplish her feat, Cheryl needs help. She needs business volunteers to help with seminars that teach her clients about how to do their taxes. She needs funds to help her clients with start-up ideas or with office supplies. She would like interns from The University of Akron who could work with her clients in the writing lab.

She’s a small operation with a big heart and a strong drive, and her success means a less needy society that works for itself to build a stronger economy for Akron. Cheryl can’t do it alone, however.

People have told Cheryl that low income level people don’t have what it takes. But she knows there is a work ethic waiting to be tapped and assisted.


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Power of the People: Cities Can Harness It

June 20th, 2012

By Eric A. Johnson, Ph.D.

If you don’t believe in the power of urban residents to help themselves — and help struggling American cities in the process — let me tell you a story about Akron, Ohio.

Like many traditional cities, the loss of manufacturing jobs hit Akron hard, and the Great Recession only deepened the blows.  But today in Akron, residents in the city’s oldest neighborhoods are engaged in block groups, faith groups and now even a group to explore the possibility of imposing a property assessment (on themselves) to raise money for neighborhood improvements.

Here, residents are discovering that by joining together, they can collectively counter negative forces that result in crime, blight and a sense of hopelessness.

Recently, Akron’s University Park Alliance hosted a Neighborhood Summit that drew a crowd of 300 for five hours on a Saturday to discuss the future of a 50-block area at the center of Akron.  With computers and keypads supplied by The University of Akron, we followed the format of the national nonprofit America Speaks for polling citizens on their priorities for their own communities.

It is probably no surprise that “safe streets” ranked No. 1 in the voting.  In second place:  “Neighbors helping neighbors,” in affirmation of block groups and faith groups serving as agents of change.  (If Akron residents are feeling the impact of these groups lately, it’s because they’re seeing how they can leverage City Hall by banding together in groups.  In one case, a report to City Hall resulted in the boarding up of a home where activity had posed a threat to neighbors.)

The scope of citizen commitment we are seeing in Akron, and the extent that people are willing to give of themselves, touches me deeply.

When we asked Summit participants about their income, 18 percent reported annual household income of less than $25,000.  An additional 20 percent reported annual household income of less than $50,000.

Yet when we asked how many would be willing to explore the possibility of a yearly property assessment for five years, to raise money for neighborhood improvements, a resounding 83 percent said yes.

At UPA, our philosophy is that urban revitalization must take place within the context of robust civic engagement.  Just as cities assess their institutional assets, such as those emanating from universities and hospitals, it is equally important to draw on the dynamic power of human assets.

The way to build strong, healthy neighborhoods — supporting schools and families — is by coalescing the most positive influences in the neighborhood at all levels, from neighbors to civic and business leaders.  In University Park, we’re especially fortunate to have numerous faith communities that form a basis for people coming together across social, racial and economic lines.

During our Summit, we talked about how urban neighborhoods could ill-afford to wait for local, state or federal government solutions. That is a self-defeating strategy.  Rather, if citizens embrace the full potential of democracy, they have the ability to generate a collective strength that could amaze them.

Often, people rally around crisis.  But opportunity is also a rallying point — and an exciting one.  In Akron, we closed our Summit with residents saying what they’d do to support an additional property assessment for the University Park neighborhoods.

The prospect of a new tax?  They cheered the idea.


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The coming jobs war and Akron, Ohio’s serious boot camp

May 15th, 2012

This week, Gallup CEO Jim Clifton spoke at the annual meeting of University Park Alliance (UPA). Here is a man who travels the world, gathering information about cities, countries and economies. Engage him in conversation, and he can quote economic statistics from a dozen different locales.

So when he spoke to nearly 600 people at our annual meeting, it was encouraging to hear him speak of many of the same elements for economic success that we are building upon in Akron.

Clifton, who has just written the book, “The Coming Jobs War,” argues that America’s future economic strength and standing as the world’s largest economy depends on whether we can nurture entrepreneurs on the local level. In his view, innovative, proactive and collaborative leadership within the nation’s cities will be essential to our prosperity and ability to create new jobs.

“Innovation has no value whatsoever until it has a customer next to it,’’ Clifton said. This is why local leaders should embrace entrepreneurs, so that innovation, particularly emanating from universities, translates into jobs and economic growth at home, not afar.

Clifton recognizes Akron as an example of a city with an “intentional” strategy to draw on existing strengths to revitalize the economic base of our core city.

In my job, as someone working in urban revitalization at the local level, Clifton’s points resonate deeply, because my task is the practical work of putting high economic ideals into practice.  UPA’s vision for economic growth relies on a “coalition of the willing” consisting of local leaders, businesses and residents eager to support entrepreneurship, good housing, education, walkable neighborhoods and an overall high quality of life.

Our redevelopment plan for a 50-block area in Akron’s core centers on the idea of creating a holistic environment that inspires entrepreneurial activity.  UPA’s partners include The University of Akron and three local hospitals as key institutions in a biomedical corridor. Because of this alliance, supported with economic data analysis and architectural plans, we have attracted the global real estate firm KUD International as project manager and financial guarantor for millions of dollars in redevelopment.

We were honored that KUD executives joined us at our luncheon, along with officials from the company’s Japanese parent, Kajima Corp.

The presence of international guests speaks to Akron’s vision.  In decades past, our city suffered the pain of globalization with the loss of much of our manufacturing base related to rubber.  Now we are looking to fully engage once again in the global economy, by drawing on polymer expertise at The University of Akron, the biomedical expertise in our hospitals and the entrepreneurial energy emerging from our collaborations.

Clifton’s comments validate our basic premise:  That it’s up to local communities, and local leaders, to set a new economic course. Some cities will succeed in this and others will not.  Success is about a roadmap. It’s about seed money, mentorship and incubation for start-up businesses.  It’s about STEM schools, such as the one we have in University Park.  It’s about scholarships for students, and grants to young entrepreneurs — such as we announced at our luncheon.  And importantly, it’s about the coalition of the willing.

In practice, the work of getting organizations to work together is tedious and often difficult.  Ultimately, team leaders are those who are willing and those who believe.

At our luncheon, KUD’s CEO, Marvin Suomi reinforced the value of coalition of the willing and how rare a thing it is. KUD chose to invest in Akron, he said, because our civic leaders worked together to develop a clear vision, backed by solid planning.  In short, they applied the same due diligence that investors expect before committing to any new business venture.

Because local leaders took initiative, Akron’s entrepreneurial plans are now financially supported by a global real estate developer.

All this is happening in a city that could be called the Rustbelt.  We think of ourselves as putting on a new belt.  We invite you to subscribe to the CoreMatters blog to follow our progress.


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National Day of Prayer in University Park

May 10th, 2012

Dear University Park friends,

The University Park Alliance (UPA) staff extends our deep thanks for the amazing prayer service held in support of our work on the recent National Day of Prayer.  We especially thank the host of the event, Pastor Ron Shultz of Family of Faith United Methodist Church on East Market Street.

It means everything to us to be worthy of this high expression of community support, with Rev. Shultz and fellow University Park pastors leading friends and neighbors in song and prayer for the success of our urban revitalization efforts.  These prayers remain in our hearts.  They are prayers that guide our work as we join with city officials, business and institutional leaders and neighbors alike to improve safety, housing, wellness and job opportunities in the 50-block area that comprises University Park.

As we carry out this important work, we are ever mindful that it takes all of us working as a team to overcome challenges and negative influences.    Civic engagement is essential to achieving the goal of community transformation.

We at University Park Alliance are committed to the neighborhood and its people.  By choosing to pray for our work, you expressed your commitment to the work at hand.  We hope to see you all at our Neighborhood Summit on June 16 from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. at Quaker Square.  Lunch and childcare will be provided.  The nonprofit America Speaks will help facilitate the event with technological assistance  from The University of Akron.  The purpose of the Summit is to celebrate our progress to date, shape new initiatives,  and provide a forum to connect neighbors with leaders in the City and from  anchor institutions within University Park.

Register online at www.surveymonkey.com/s/UPASummit

With faith in a common mission, we look forward to achieving success together for the benefit of all who live, learn and work in this great place we call University Park.


Eric Anthony Johnson, Executive Director

Carol Murphy, Chief of Staff


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How a major philanthropic effort is fueling Akron’s economic makeover

April 17th, 2012

Originally posted by Dr. Eric Anthony Johnson to Living Cities’ The Catalyst blog on

If you don’t know Akron, Ohio, you might be surprised to find a major charitable foundation deeply invested in creating an entirely new urban landscape that will support and encourage new economic activity in this former Rubber Capital of the World.

However, if you know Akron, you know this is where the late John S. and James L. Knight got their start as newspaper greats, and it seems fitting that the Knight legacy continues to shape the city’s future in an extraordinary way.

Because of Knight Foundation investment, Akron has a new organizational structure in place to ensure that we systematically draw on the strengths of our anchor institutions in order to generate new economic opportunity. At University Park Alliance (UPA), our role is to do the practical work, as discussed in Marian Urquilla’s March 29 blog post, to align “disparate actors” toward common goals. Our approach mirrors Ms. Urquilla’s recommended strategy in that our focus is clearly and narrowly defined. Last year, for example, UPA developed a Core City Vision Plan to revitalize a 50-block area around The University of Akron; architectural renderings illustrate our concept of an urban lifestyle in an environment of research, education, innovation and civic engagement.

If Akron presents a new model for such an ambitious undertaking, it is because we have strong anchor institutions and civic leaders who work collaboratively together. UPA’s job as a nonprofit community development corporation is to leverage these anchor institutions so that new development occurs within the core of our city, ultimately blurring geographic lines between the downtown, the university and three regional hospitals all in close proximity.

Our vision calls for major capital investments within the context of the highest ideals in urban planning. Priorities include livability, walkability, mixed-use density and high quality of life for people.

Recently, Akron gained national attention by drawing in the international real estate firm KUD International as project manager and financial backer of large-scale capital investments in our target area. KUD’s corporate leaders made it clear: They came because of the strength of our master redevelopment plan, our team of community leaders and our assessment of current economic activity as an indicator of future potential.

Most recently, new research by Tripp Umbach projects that by 2030, the implementation of our Core City Vision Plan will generate $1.8 billion in economic activity, $90 million tax revenue and 14,392 jobs.

As a traditional manufacturing city, Akron could just as easily see a future of further decline. Consider this profile of Akron from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey 2010:

  • Unemployment at 16.2 percent, compared to a national average of 10.8
  • Median household income of $31,171, compared to $50,046 for the nation as a whole
  • A population decline of 8.3 percent since 2000 while the nation’s population increased by 9.9 percent during the same period

However, today Akron looks poised for growth with Knight Foundation as a critical partner.

By taking philanthropy to a new level — through investment in an organizational structure that can propel new growth — the Knight Foundation helped Akron create a necessary new toolbox to carry out a growth strategy in a way anchor institutions could not do independently.

Today, what’s special in Akron is the gritty, audacious push to make this city a towering example of the power to plan locally for global success. We in Akron have a big view of the concept of collaboration. For us, it’s about channeling resources in a way that can make Akron a global competitor — while creating an attractive place where people can work and live and enjoy a high quality of life.

We view ourselves as a model for how a city can draw on existing assets, leverage a spirit of collaboration among community leaders, and pave the way for new prosperity as a real alternative for older cities.


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Intelligent Optimism: A buzzword finds new meaning in Akron

February 22nd, 2012

People still ask why I came to Akron.  I tell them that the longer I’m here, the more evidence I see that Akron has the components to attract talent, as well as national attention, on the merit of economic redevelopment potential that stands to become a model for traditional American cities seeking a new and prosperous future.

Because I wasn’t born here, I weighed the possibility of living and working here with detachment.  Having spent my career in cities around the country, I understood the pitfalls of urban redevelopment plans — and there are plenty of them.

Yet in Akron, I saw something rare.  To borrow from a buzzword, I saw “intelligent optimism” on the part of city leaders planning an economic revitalization.  Akron enjoys solid planning, backed by years of effort to draw on an existing knowledge base, to develop a new economic base that is global in reach.  Importantly, a talented development team and collaborative leadership backs the local effort.

Recently, the scope of Akron’s potential came into clearer view with a new analysis that builds on a 2011 Tripp Umbach, of Pittsburgh, assessment of existing economic activity among anchor institutions.  The latest data, coming in a pair of studies by Tripp Umbach and Tetra Tech of Arlington, Va., indicates that $2.5 billion in current spending in the core of Akron — just as a result of anchor institutions — has the potential to increase to $4.3 billion a year by 2030 with implementation UPA’s strategic plans.

The Akron Beacon Journal, a voice of critical commentary, referred to the studies as lending “a measure of concreteness to the opportunity and the promise.”

The promise is further bolstered by the presence of the global real estate firm KUD International, which  signed a master services agreement in 2011 to develop projects outlined in UPA’s master plan to revitalize four districts in downtown Akron.

As an investor, KUD’s CEO Marvin Suomi also came here as an outsider.  Suomi’s optimism over Akron’s economic future developed out of the due diligence that his company applied in assessing Akron’s potential to grow economically.

My prediction:  Expect more outsiders to come to Akron.  There is opportunity here.

We now enjoy  a clear and accelerated strategy to execute a vision that will forever change our city.    Intelligent optimism, in Akron’s case, emerges out of planning followed by action and investment with an eye toward transformational change.


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Beyond boundaries

February 7th, 2012

This guest blog entry is provided by Dr. Luis M. Proenza, president of The University of Akron

By Luis M. Proenza

Our vision for Akron and all of Northeast Ohio is of a place where the artificial boundaries that separate university and community blur and become irrelevant.

As a metropolitan-sited institution, The University of Akron aligns itself with the local and regional community to build economic, social and physical health. We seek the development of an innovation ecosystem that encompasses campuses, business districts and neighborhoods.  In physical terms, our vision is of a vibrant, mixed-use environment that is pedestrian friendly and in which everything that happens is somehow about learning and health and wellness.

Economically, we are strong proponents of collective impact, and have established a broad-based and robust platform for regional economic development, which has come to be known as the “Akron Model.” As this exemplar attracts national attention for strides in economic revitalization, we are increasingly asked how and why we are achieving success.

We explain that a changing economy or changing technological underpinnings of any industry require the institutions, themselves, to change, and that the Akron Model provides a useful framework for such a transformation.

We demonstrate how, through innovative collaborations, initiatives and interactions, metropolitan-sited institutions can play a vital role in sustaining and growing their regions in this global, knowledge and conceptual economy. And we tell them that, beyond the many statistics and facts that detail our successes, the most important outcome of the Akron Model is the least quantifiable and most intangible. It is a kind of entrepreneurial optimism, a belief that our collective impact can achieve audacious goals and improbable outcomes.

The Akron Model enables us to believe that we can accomplish bold endeavors because we have accomplished bold endeavors, and we will continue to do so by using the Akron Model as our framework.

For example, our partnership with three regional health care centers and a nearby medical school, supported by additional public, private and philanthropic entities, launched the Austen BioInnovation Institute in Akron in 2008. The institute seeks to establish Akron as the world’s leading location for biomaterials and medicine, and health care innovation and commercialization. Because of the university’s strength in synthetic materials and polymer research, we chose to focus on innovations that would draw on our existing knowledge base.

Another key component of the Akron Model is the University Park Alliance (UPA), which was established more than a decade ago with major support from The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. This neighborhood revitalization initiative catalyzes community engagement and private investment in a 50-block area adjacent to campus.

UPA continues to attract additional partners, who have brought new capabilities and vitality to the organization. The latest member to join the UPA team is the global real estate firm, KUD International, a subsidiary of the Japanese construction company Kajima Corporation. KUD signed a master services agreement in 2011 to develop projects outlined in UPA’s master plan to revitalize four districts in downtown Akron.

In commenting on Akron’s new relationship with KUD, The Wall Street Journal noted that many real estate investors pass over the nation’s midsection, while Akron now looks to the potential for hundreds of millions of dollars in construction and renovations, including new housing, offices and retail development.

Northeast Ohio can compete in today’s global marketplace, but to do so we must act regionally and collaboratively, we must welcome partners from across the globe as well as from across the street, and we must be bold in our vision, thinking and action.

Dr. Luis M. Proenza is president of The University of Akron, and a member of the executive committee for the Council on Competitiveness, and the Government-University-Industry-Research Roundtable of the National Academies.



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Akron makes MSN Real Estate’s list of top 5 real estate markets — want to know why?

January 17th, 2012

The news site MSN Real Estate just cited Akron, Ohio, as one of the five “most promising” real estate markets in the nation, defined by those markets expected to suffer the smallest slides.  The forecasting firm Local Market Monitor made the picks.

The MSN report notes that Akron’s average home price of $148,508 fell by 4% in the last year, and that the local market should hit bottom this year followed by a modest 2% gain in 2013.  “Jobs — especially manufacturing jobs — are coming back to Akron,’’ the report said.  “Like many Midwest cities, there was no housing boom here to speak of. Values are down just 13% from the peak, about a third of the hit the U.S. as a whole suffered.”

On its face, the fact that Akron’s real estate market is to drop less than most others across the country may seem nothing to feel good about. A city doesn’t grow with soft real estate market. But if you look beneath the surface, there is reason for those of us in Akron to see opportunity ahead. The ranking also is affirmation of our economic recovery as we separate ourselves from the pack of traditional manufacturing cities stuck in the doldrums.

As the Harvard urban economist Ed Glaeser points out in his book Triumph of the City, not every once prosperous city can be restored to economic strength.  But some cities can be saved.

The issue for cities today is who can and who cannot produce goods locally and sell them globally.

In Akron, we are maintaining and building a job base in traditional industries while creating new-economy jobs through the development of a vibrant medical industry.

On the traditional side, we’ve added jobs as a result in the uptick in the auto industry, plus we have Goodyear, Bridgestone Americas and nearby Diebold all building new corporate facilities here with a combined capital investment of $360 million.

On the new economy side, the business and university leaders in Akron have come together around a plan, primarily funded by the Knight Foundation, to leverage the economic synergy of our four major anchor institutions  — The University of Akron, Summa Health System, Akron General Health System and Akron Children’s Hospital — to build a competitive city with a diverse economy. Seeing this potential, KUD International is now the project manager and major financial backer of the redevelopment of University Park — the 50-block are surrounding The University of Akron and bordering Akron’s three major hospitals. That signals hundreds of millions in capital investment beginning in 2012 and continuing through this decade.

Rather than coincidence, Akron’s ranking among MSN Real Estate’s Top 5 cities is a result of years of planning and proactive leadership in this city, which then led to new investment in the local economy.

University Park Alliance is particularly focused on revitalizing real estate in a 50-block area around the university.  It is an area of great opportunity.   Call us at 330-777-2070 if you are interested in learning more.



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Award-winning promotions for Akron’s University Park speak to real plans, real substance

December 15th, 2011

It’s more than blah, blah, blah.  A good marketing campaign for your community should go to the core of why people want to live, work and do business there.  It’s up to each community to create an image of itself, backed by substance, to convey its unique competitive advantages.

No question, the perception of so-called “legacy” manufacturing cities tends to be old and uninviting, even in places where there is rebuilding.  How does a community change that image?

Recently, the Mid-America Economic Development Council recognized Akron’s University Park Alliance as No. 1 among large communities in ten Midwestern states for its “Community Promotion and Marketing Program” and No. 2 for its website and online communications.

On top of that, UPA’s print marketing campaign placed No. 1 in Ohio’s annual Excellence in Economic Development Marketing competition for large communities, sponsored by the Ohio Economic Development Association (OEDA).

We’re proud of how we’ve promoted University Park through beautiful materials and online communications that reflect a new reality for Akron, which is a long way from its smoke-stack past.  Most of all, we’re proud of the message that we can honestly convey about a new, emerging University Park in Akron, Ohio.

It’s not about talk.  It’s about a whole lot of hard work, and collaborative planning among leaders of our city over many years.  A substantive growth plan helps tell an effective economic development story.


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