AKRON, Ohio — A quiet renaissance that’s been underway in North Akron is ready to awaken the city’s international neighborhood from a long slumber lulled by the slow decline of the Temple Square business district.
By early June, the North Akron Community Development Corp. (NACDC) will be running five busy operations on or near prime Main Street frontage in the North Hill neighborhood.
“I think we have so much going on because we want to be able to be the front runner in the neighborhood and be able to provide the change and opportunities,” said Director of Operations Justin Chenault. “This is a hell of a balance. I love it. I don't mind the restless nights.”
It started in 2017 with the Exchange House, a refurbished home one block off Main Street that was transformed into a cultural gathering place for Akron’s immigrants.
Now, with the Exchange House as its centerpiece, the NACDC is revitalizing the Temple Square business district and beyond, creating places for Akron’s minorities, artists and entrepreneurs to learn new skills, sell their wares, see live performances, enjoy international cuisine and spend time with like-minded others.
“Our three main focuses now are economic development, creative placemaking and building social cohesion,” said Executive Director Katie Beck.
Beck, who turned the Exchange House into a community asset, says the timing is right for the NACDC’s rapid growth.
“This summer people are going to be getting back together and we want to provide opportunities for that to happen,” she said.
That’s when Beck and Chenault plan to unveil the NACDC’s work: Envision Temple Square: A North Akron Community Development Corporation Celebration, open to the community from 2 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturday, June 5.
During the event, the NACDC will showcase its popular NoHi, a popup, weekend-carryout restaurant launched last August at 778 N. Main St.
NoHi gives entrepreneurial chefs the space and support they need to bring their culinary creations to the public, and experience what it would be like to one day run their own kitchen. By June, NoHi is planned to house NoHi Coffee with indoor seating and an outdoor patio.
Next door is NoTique, an artisan gift shop, packed with hand-made items by entrepreneurs and artists from around the city. Opening last November, the boutique has continually evolving inventory of textiles, pottery, soaps and jewelry.
The Exchange House is now a full-time Airbnb, which happened organically when in-person programming was paused, Beck said. But programming didn’t end permanently — it was moved next door, to a bright green house called the Market House.
A multi-use space, the Market House began programming this month for minorities and women who want to learn new skills or work in the new maker’s areas, crafting items they can sell at NoTique, or elsewhere.
The Backyard, opening in June, encompasses the Exchange House and Market House yards and adjoins two city lots on Main Street. With new lighting, furniture and a fire pit, and a new covered pavilion and stage, the NACDC plans to offer the Backyard for gatherings from weddings to concerts.
It’s also designed for people to use when they purchase food or beverages at NoHi. The NACDC is working to have a crosswalk installed at NoHi and NoTique to make crisscrossing Main Street easier.
“We're trying to tie it all together,” Beck said, “so people come to Temple Square for a meal, and hang out in the backyard with a concert.”
Beck and Chenault said their sights are already set on future growth. They want to build an arts and culture center on the two city lots.
“The idea is that we're trying to build sustainable spaces, so they need to make revenue to pay for bills and staff and we're figuring out that balance, for sure,” Beck said. “They're each like their own mini business in some ways. They’re are like five public assets that we operate.”
The NACDC has been able to flourish despite the pandemic, which Beck says indicates an exciting future.
“I think we’ve been good at meeting the moment,” she said. “NoHi wouldn’t have happened without COVID.”
The NACDC means business – literally – in its quest to empower local entrepreneurs and ensure the city’s minority populations have access to opportunities.
The Envision Temple Square event allows them to do that, with a day of music and food, speakers and performances.
“We wanted to find a way to make the biggest splash that we could to draw in the excitement and the investors," Chenault said. “I think now we're capturing that and harnessing it and getting it into our sail so we can get to where we want to be.”
During the June event, a 15-foot-tall decorative totem will be unveiled at the corner of Cuyahoga and Howard streets along with 60-feet of mural space, branding it the NoHi Heritage Courtyard.
That corner, a block west of Temple Square, is indicative of the early redlining that severed the neighborhood. The totem will be positioned to show the reach of the NACDC, which is deliberate in extending beyond the prime business district, Beck said.
“Our goal is to make this a thriving art scene,” Chenault said. “But it's really kind of economic development with entrepreneurship, and pushing toward the arts is really going to be a dope opportunity.”