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Akron's Main Street Reconstruction Project: the Promise and the Pain of Progress

The city of Akron is at the midpoint of a major reconstruction project downtown. Bright orange barrels and rubber cones stretch for blocks on Main Street and trucks rumble by kicking up dust. Akron is completely rebuilding the corridor through the heart of downtown.

There’s a perception that downtown is a kind of “no go” zone. But to many the work is long overdue.

“I call it the 20 year overnight success story,” said Howard Parr, executive director of the Akron Civic Theatre. “This conversation has been going on for a long time. But what we’re seeing is the first step of the actual transformation that has been discussed for 20 years.”

The Civic is considered Akron’s jewel on Main Street, but for nearly two decades it’s been in the shadow of six blighted buildings. These buildings are now part of the Bowery project, another major redevelopment along Main Street.

So downtown looks a little like a war zone.

Deputy Mayor and chief of staff James Hardy said the city’s aware there’s widespread orange barrel fatigue, but he believes the $31 million project will be worth the pain.

“The Main Street project is going to turn Main Street from a concrete jungle into a greenway, with trees and permanent planters and rainwater gardens. It’s going to be something to see,” he said. “We’re prioritizing light to make sure that anyone who patrons our Main Street businesses feels safe and secure and also kind of inspired.”

Kyle Kutuchief of the Knight Foundation said the work will completely change the character of downtown.

“It’s now going to be a main street that’s going to be a neighborhood. When the community sees the design of the new Main Street it’s going to be a place you’ll want to walk every day. That’s a big transformation.”

Even so, the construction is keeping some people away.

Charlie Somtrakool has owned Cilantro Thai & Sushion Main Street for 10 years. He said rumors that his restaurant is closing aren’t helping. Business is down about 25 percent. He said the fencing around the construction is making it hard for pedestrians to get around.

“You literally have to walk at least a couple blocks because the fence was wrapped up around it and there’s no way you can cut through the fence without walking around to get across to us.”

About three blocks north on Main Street is the Peanut Shoppe, an Akron destination. Owner Marge Klein said except for downtown workers, business has been a little slower. But getting around is doable.

“You just have to be patient and kind of scout it around and go around the block and watch the one way signs -- that’s it.”

Mary Gould is a regular customer who recently made a trip to the Peanut Shoppe - she parked two blocks away.

“It’s very disconcerting, the inability to get around the city, because of the businesses on main street,” she said. “These are the people who have been here and are the main stay of Akron, Ohio”.

The Knight Foundation is providing funding to help Downtown Akron Partnership entice people to come back downtown. DAP’s Sharon Gillberg said that includes discounts, contests and various guides for getting around on foot.

Directional dots on the sidewalk in downtown Akron
Downtown Akron Partnership installed dots on the sidewalks to guide pedestrians around the construction.

“We have the walk this way signs, we’ve got the little decals on the sidewalks to lead you to your path. It may be a few extra feet to walk a half a block to the next intersection but making sure that you can get to where you need to go.”

The construction isn’t hurting all businesses – the Civic's Howard Parr said the theatre is having one of its best years.

“It appears to be difficult to get around but it is far less difficult to get around than it actually appears,” he said. “It’s more of an issue of fear of the unknown than it is about what is actually happening.”

This is a once in a generation project. And the time is right because the city was awarded two Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grants -- $5 million in 2016 and $8 million earlier last year. Akron also was awarded $7.5 million in federal bridge funds in 2017 for the State Street Bridge. It’s a good opportunity to update the utilities under Main Street, as well as  Cedar and Exchange streets, Hardy said.

“It’s not like we crack Main Street every couple years,” he said.

Archie Skidmore has practiced law downtown for more than 60 years. With the decline in Akron’s population, he believes the project is timely.

“Akron was due for a change. And I think it had to be a major change. But I think in the long run it’ll pay off.”

His son, Eric, has worked with his dad downtown for the last 30 years.

“If a city is going to continue to grow it can’t stand still, the city stood still in the 60s and 70s and watched the rubber companies go away, so it’s an inconvenience but if you love Akron you’ll put up with it.”

The city expects phase one of the Main Street project to wrap up by the end of the year. Phase 2 extending two blocks to the north is slated to begin next spring. Visit the city’s Drive Akron website to stay current as the project progresses.

Jennifer Conn joined WKSU in February 2019 as Akron reporter.