Above and Beyond

Elevate Akron aims to further develop the city through support of existing local businesses

By Jordyn Grzelewski

The Akron area is doing just fine. But economic development leaders hope a new strategic plan will position the metro area to go beyond the status quo in the coming years.

Elevate Akron was developed by the city, Summit County, the Greater Akron Chamber of Commerce and the GAR Foundation. The initiative takes a unique approach to economic development, eschewing the traditional model of incentivizing big-name, big-employment companies in favor of supporting existing local businesses. Area leaders also plan to change the status quo by connecting what they say is a fragmented system of economic development, focusing on working together to create a more innovative local economy.

The plan’s strategies are based on a market assessment conducted by the partner organizations.

“What we found generally is that Greater Akron is doing OK. We’re not doing great, we’re not doing terrible. We’re kind of moving along at status quo,” says Steve Millard, president and CEO of the Greater Akron Chamber. “But, if we don’t begin to make some hard pushes in some areas where we think there are some opportunities, we’re going to get left behind.”

Steve Millard

Putting the area at greater risk are several challenges. For examples: start-up rates are on the decline, business relocations are way down, manufacturing jobs are dwindling, the middle class continues to shrink and innovation is increasingly concentrated in a select few metro areas. On the uptick are investments from mergers and acquisitions, as well as growth driven by scale-up firms.

Conventional economic-development strategies are also not as effective as they once were, and Greater Akron’s model in particular is too disjointed, according to the research. The assessment also found a skills gap in the workforce, Greater Akron’s African-American residents are being excluded from economic opportunities and job hubs such as downtown Akron are not the drivers of growth they should be. Also, the region has been overlooking potential growth areas, such as high-tech firms, scale-up and mid-size firms, and polymers or advanced materials clusters.

So, what’s the plan to address these obstacles to growth?

Elevate Akron will focus on what its leaders call the “new fundamentals” of economic development. This means it will prioritize what the area already has to offer over attracting new, buzz-worthy employers. The plan focuses on five strategies:

Taking a new approach to business retention and expansion by bolstering the competitiveness of scale-up and middle-market firms.

Creating ways to include Akron’s black population in the area’s economic growth, starting with initiatives such as digital skills training and new internship programs.

Prioritizing innovative, high-tech ventures such as Bounce Innovation Hub, a business development service.

Refocusing on urban centers.

Implementing changes in a coordinated, unified way.

“It is not typical. I think a lot of communities have focused on doubling down on doing things the more traditional way,” Millard acknowledges. “We’re doing things a little differently. But we think economic development is about creating successful conditions for companies to be successful.”