In the black

Fresh from a successful re-election campaign and beginning his 18th year as the longest-serving mayor in Akron’s history, Don Plusquellic enters 2004 with big plans for the city’s economic development.

As mayor, he’s forged strong partnerships over the last 10 years with homebuilders who would never have dreamed of building in Akron neighborhoods they didn’t deem competitive with less-risky suburban development.

“We’ve got them lined up now, wanting to build in our city because we’ve done small pilot projects and then expanded,” Plusquellic says. Plusquellic has other projects in the works, including a new library and local grocery store in the Highland Square area.

All of this comes at a time when Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo are looking at drastic budget cuts and layoffs. Meanwhile, Akron’s proposed $417 million operating budget is higher than last year’s $408 million, and there are no huge cuts or layoffs planned.

Smart Business spoke with Plusquellic about these new developments and about Akron’s future.

Q: Akron is tearing down dilapidated houses and building new homes, as well as new commercial and civic space. What is the city doing right?

It didn’t happen overnight. From the time I walked in here, I built an economic development department. We needed to have a place for business to make whatever arguments they wanted to make and have an advocate for business development in the city. We moved people out of the planning department and transferred them to economic development so they were working full time, and we’ve added a few staff people since then.

Probably 50 percent or more of my time is spent doing business activities: working with the Greater Akron Chamber, working with individual business owners, trying to develop plans or react to plans the business owners have put forward.

That’s a big part of why we’re seeing some success now. Because we started early on, knowing and understanding that we were right in the center of this changing world, in terms of the manufacturing companies here, primarily the rubber industry leaving for a variety of reasons, and having to rebuild our economy.

We started early on doing economic development, and businesses that we were able to entice to move here or stay here have helped to provide that income tax base that we need and on which we survive.

During the ’90s, we were trying to study departments and right-size so we didn’t have a big swing in hiring. We probably have 200 fewer full-time city employees than we did in 1990. That is just good basic management.

Q: What role does a mayor play in attracting and retaining business? I sit in on many deals and meetings with businesses. In many instances, there are conflicts. For example, can we buy this piece of property for somebody because the business wants to expand on their existing location; they’ve bought up all the property they can, and there’s one property owner who holds out.

You have to weigh those things and make tough decisions. Sometimes they’re not popular, and sometimes they’re quite controversial. You have to be willing to take some controversy to be able to accomplish something because there are very few things in life, especially in an older, mostly developed city like Cleveland or Akron, where you’re not going to run into a situation where you’ve got conflicting interests on property.

Most calls we make are targeted at companies looking at locating in the United States. Some people say, ‘You’re helping to bring those foreign competitors.’ The truth is, they’re going to move to the United States, and they’re better off in Akron than in North Carolina.

We’re working those trade shows and trying to get the word out that Akron’s a good place to be. Mayors have an important role to play as final decision-makers on how much we are going to do to commit to making this happen. Everybody always gets scared about spending money, and I understand that, but I always ask the question. ‘What’s the cost of us not doing it? There’s a cost there, too.’

For example, we had Building 41, which was part of the BFGoodrich complex. It was probably the worst eyesore in Northeast Ohio, and it sat vacant for eight or nine years. I finally said, ‘We’ve got to do something about this.’

We started to clean it up, buy out the old liens, negotiate a nickel on a dollar with banks in New York and started that process because I asked, ‘What is the cost of us doing nothing?’

We had people we were trying to attract into downtown, and every time they came into town on that end, they saw this terrible eyesore. I thought it detracted from our ability to attract other businesses. We had to do something, and we had a major investment in that building.

Within months, Advanced Elastomer Systems, headquartered in St. Louis, which was aware of the expertise here, the training and things available to the polymer industry, was looking. We became a great match because we had already cleared the deck for a developer to come in and rebuild that building to suit their needs. We were able to recruit about 175 to 200 jobs out of St. Louis.

Q: What has kept Akron from being in the situation other Ohio cities find themselves in?

If you look at the situation in Cleveland, Columbus and Toledo, the surprise is Columbus because most of us think of them as being recession-proof. They have Ohio State, the state capital, the headquarters of the banking and insurance industries, and you think, ‘How could any downturn in the economy affect them?’

But it has, and yet in Akron, we’re still holding our own and doing relatively well.

We haven’t had to ask our citizens for an income tax increase for city operations for 22 years. We haven’t had to cut levels of service because we stabilized the economy here, even though we lost 35,000 rubber jobs.

In the last few years, we’ve announced different programs for low-interest loans through the SBA and have been working with the SBA on forgivable loans. We can be even more helpful to businesses with several of those programs. We’re looking at creating new ways to improve the business climate.

Q: What can other cities learn from Akron’s approach to economic development?

It has to be a full-time commitment with people out working with businesses. We hired the Greater Akron Chamber to make business contacts for us. We let them talk to businesses to find out their needs, concerns and problems.

They try to give us an early warning for things that might make a business owner mad that we might not even know about, like drainage or sewer problems.

Going out and chasing companies is still an important part of economic development, and it’s the kind of thing that hopefully Team NEO is going to help us with in a large scale on a regional level. Eighty percent of the growth in any community comes from businesses within, and when a business outgrows its building and starts looking, there are plenty of options out there and plenty of competitors.

I think cities need to learn to become competitive and understand how to nurture start-up businesses, which we’ve been doing for over 20 years now in an incubator.

HOW TO REACH: Mayor Don Plusquellic, (330) 375-2345,