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With Amazon Looming, What Is the Future of Retail in Akron?

Fifty years ago, when Akron’s first shopping mall opened, it marked a beginning of the migration of retail out of downtown. These days, that mall is struggling and customers may be heading back to Main Street. WKSU’s Kabir Bhatia looks at the future of retail in Akron.

In 1967, “Bonnie and Clyde” roared into theaters, including the then-new twinplex at Chapel Hill Mall. The theater was joined in Akron’s first enclosed shopping mall by merchants like Recordland, Kroger’s and Gray Drug.

A half-century later, Chapel Hill sits more than half-empty. Its crosstown rival – Rolling Acres Mall – was shuttered years ago and is being demolished. And that’s presenting an opportunity once again for downtown shopping.

Lauren Ward owns Noto Boutique.

“My customer is somebody who really seeks out something different and wants that local boutique feel. They don’t want to go to the mall. They want to support something different and unique. And they want an experience as well. They come in here because they know me and want to feel like they’re a part of something; not just supporting a big chain store.”

Local products with a local feel
Ward opened her first location a decade ago and now has two locations downtown, offering a mix of vintage and new clothing. But she says local flavor is what sells best.

“We definitely sell the most of our ‘Bike Ohio’ T-shirts, especially being right here down by the Towpath. We just came out with a new one – it says ‘Good Vibes’ in the kind of Goodyear-style font – and that has been going over really well, too.”

Ward says that commitment to staying local and knowing her customers is what’s making downtown merchants successful. Christine Vadala with the Downtown Akron Partnership agrees.

“It’s nothing new; we’ve seen it for hundreds of years. But in a sense, it’s coming back to the home-maker. You’re seeing a definite shift in home-making versus, dare I say, China. That shift of having pride and ownership in something that was made locally far (exceeds) an international purchase.”

In tandem with residential

'We have to stop thinking in terms of retail space and thinking much more in terms of social space: Places where people can hang out and feel comfortable.'

Vadala also says scaling up retail in tandem with population – instead of having one wait for the other – is the best strategy for growing downtown. Back at Noto, Lauren Ward agrees, saying that what shoppers need are “definitely more fun shops like mine.” While that may provide competition, she feels that’s the way to bring people to the area.

“If we had more clothing boutiques, more fun gift shops, book stores, more coffee; once we have more people in-place down here, the retailers will want to be here because there will be a need.”

Ward says the renovation of the Akron City Centre hotel into apartments will definitely help. But – as she’s noted with all the foot traffic from the Towpath Trail – it also helps to have amenities and attractions nearby. Ned Hill, a professor of city and regional planning at Ohio State University, says Akron could capitalize on the trail as other cities have, since it runs alongside the Ohio & Erie Canal.

“Daylighting the canals would be hugely important; water is magic." He points to Indianapolis, "which has used their canals very, very well as focal points. [In] San Antonio, the canal has the same function. ... We have to stop thinking in terms of retail space and thinking much more in terms of social space: Places where people can hang out and feel comfortable.”

The downtown advantage
And then, he says, they’ll shop. Chapel Hill seems to be trying to adapt to that thinking: the mall was sold last year and the new owners have brought back old favorites like Archie the Snowman and motorcycle displays as well as new attractions like motorized dinosaur shows.

But Hill says traditional shopping malls are going to find less success than downtown-like lifestyle centers such as Crocker Park in Westlake.

“Crocker Park has street lights built into it; it’s more food-dependent than retail dependent and people will go for the experience and kind of incidentally shop. It’s not a good recipe; it’s about the only recipe.”

And that’s the recipe Akron officials hope will bring shoppers back downtown.

Correction: This story previously stated Crocker Park is in Beachwood. It is located in Westlake.

Kabir Bhatia is a senior reporter for Ideastream Public Media's arts & culture team.