Akron unleashes its problem-solvers
Jun 24, 2017
By Michael Douglas
Beacon Journal editorial page editor
When the United Way of Summit County announced its four Bold Goals for 2025, I cringed. The scars remain, from the collapse of the University Park Alliance, the fumbling of the BioInnovation Institute, even failing to secure the nut of the good ideas of Scott Scarborough, including the platform for entrepreneurship.
Now the Akron Public Schools will increase third grade reading proficiency rates from 38 percent to 65 percent? The graduation rate for the city schools will jump from 75 percent to 90?
The city will see one-quarter of its 42,000 working poor reach a better financial place? Emergency room visits due to drug overdoses will decline from 2,400 a year to 1,000?
Are we falling into the ambition trap, applauding ourselves for shooting high yet inevitably missing?
Two years have passed since the highly successful Don Plusquellic made his foolish exit from the mayor’s office. Much has been made of the subsequent turnover in leadership across the city. Scarborough deservedly received the boot a year ago, just two years after replacing Luis Proenza as the president of the University of Akron.
FirstEnergy has new leadership. So do Summa Health System, Akron General and Summit County. Huntington bought FirstMerit.
Bob Kulinski gave way to Jim Mullen at the United Way as the organization began to reshape its mission. United Way has changed — from essentially a fund-raiser to a problem-solver. Now it organizes and deploys resources to that purpose, driven by data from the likes of the Summit Education Initiative about what works.
The executives aren’t alone in changing. So are the organizations.
Problem-solvers are surfacing elsewhere. Look at Leadership Akron and its Civic Solutions Lab, tapping talent across the city, the group devoting a year to addressing a challenge.
Perhaps most notable is the revamped strategy of the GAR Foundation, with Christine Mayer at the lead. She also is the new chairwoman of the United Way board. The foundation is narrowing and deepening its focus to three leading priorities, early childhood education, K-16 education and economic and workforce development. Along with its partners, it sees these as areas of strength, or where GAR is more equipped to make a difference.
The foundation will remain active where it long has been a leader, in arts and culture, basic needs, such as food assistance and emergency shelter, and nonprofit leadership building. At the same time, it is following the research, say, about the link between early education and positive outcomes later in life. It is challenging itself and the community to show a better result than the current one-third of students who enter kindergarten unprepared to learn.
Not long ago, the GAR Foundation and John S. and James L. Knight Foundation launched a survey of arts and culture in the Akron area. The result is ArtsNow, led by Nicole Mullet. If the problem was a lack of cohesion, the arts and culture community missing the clout to enhance its vitality and reach, that now is being addressed. Mullet points, for instance, to the website SummitLive365.com as proving successful as a place for artists and others to connect.
The result echoes what famously has happened in St. Louis for entrepreneurs, the city jumping ahead because it found a mechanism for building a cluster, vibrant, creative and reinforcing.
I may never enter the VE Poetry Cafe on Romig Road near Rolling Acres, let alone in the early morning. I like that others are there.
Summit County has pulled together an online catalogue of all 28,000 businesses. This Summit Business Connection has the potential to serve invaluably as an economic development tool, especially in view of growth largely coming from those who are already here.
The Akron schools are remaking themselves, drawing on the achievements of Nashville and other urban districts. The city of Akron has a housing initiative that also reflects successes elsewhere.
This isn’t to diminish the magnitude of the problems, more than half of the city’s children living below the poverty line. Or the persistence and ingenuity needed to succeed. The Greater Akron Chamber has the job of finding relevance, in part, because Mayor Horrigan and his team have yet to define the city’s broader approach to economic development.
The University of Akron, beset by enrollment trouble, lacks its own definition of what it wants to be.
One question hovered when Don Plusquellic exited, such a dominant presence now gone: Who will lead? The contrasting Horrigan style has opened the way to others. They’re thinking boldly about problems.
Douglas is the Beacon Journal editorial page editor. He can be reached at 330-996-3514 or emailed at [email protected].