Behind the Knight Foundation's Push to Revive Akron

Four decades after the deindustrialization in the 1970s, reviving jobs and opportunity in battered manufacturing cities across the U.S. remains a daunting challenge.

Various foundations have come at this problem from different angles over the years, and one funder that's especially focused here these days is the Knight Foundation. In September, the foundation announced a new $5 million Knight Cities Challenge, seeking ideas to make cities more successful, with a particular eye on attracting and retaining talented people, and creating economic opportunity. 

And today, Knight announced a big new push to revive Akron, Ohio, the birthplace of both Knight newspapers and the Knight Foundation. Thirteen projects in the city will be getting support to help expand outdoor attractions, employment, and economic opportunity in the city.

All told, $1.8 million will go to projects that include restoring a baggage car on the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railway to constructing a new bike trail, and on to accelerating loans and technical assistance for local businesses. The full list of new grantees is here. 

Knight is also appointing a new interim program director for the their Akron hub, and its choice is Akron native Kyle Kutuchief, a "talent and community engagement specialist." The departing director in Akron, Josh McManus, will be heading for new adventures in business development in Detroit, where he will lead Rock Ventures, the Detroit-based family of companies headed by Quicken Loans founder and Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert.

Akron is one of 26 cities that Knight invests in through its Engaged Communities strategy. The foundation aims at five specific targets to seed revitalization including supporting civic innovators, leveraging the power of unique attractions, and working to increase talent, diversity, and civic engagement.

Akron sports some unique features, including being home to the Rubber City Rollergirls (the A-Team Tire Iron Maidens and B-Team Hot Rod Dollies) in the John S. Knight Center, a large convocation center built with funding from Knight in 1994. It also has some unique landmarks, including a 70-acre park once owned by the cofounder of Goodyear Tire, and the Ohio and Erie canal that splits the town into East and West.

With a population just shy of 200,000, Akron is the fifth largest city in Ohio. Once known as the "Rubber Capital of the World," Akron has had to cope with a sharply declining number of jobs in its rubber industry since 2000. 

Many of Knight's initiatives aim to bolster the environmental attractions of the city, and others are working hard to expand economic opportunity for young and minority community members. A $100,000 grant to Asian Services in Action will help create a peer lending and microloans program, and Torchbearers will get support to work with young emerging leaders in the city. The Akron-Summit Public Library will also be getting a new multipurpose room to increase civic engagement and support entrepreneurship.

Will these efforts work? That remains to be seen, and Knight has openly said that it doesn't have all the answers for reviving cities like Akron. (Which is why it opened its checkbook to new ideas with its Cities Challenge.)

But Knight's grantmaking reflects a clear theory of urban renewal: Cities need to be places where talented professionals want to live, but also places where workers lower down the economic ladder can improve themselves. That means, yes, building bike trails for creative class types, and getting serious about improving prospects for young people of color.