AKRON, Ohio – Since 2017, travelers have come to Akron from around the world to stay at 760 Elma Street in Akron’s North Hill neighborhood.
An older, three-story Colonial, the bluish-gray, shake-shingle house is renovated and clean but not fancy — no hot tub or state of the art home theater.
It’s a hostel once advertised on Airbnb as “Little Bhutan in Akron.” Now it’s simply the Exchange House.
For $27 a night, travelers could stay in one of the upstairs bedrooms and have access to the kitchen and bath. They also were invited to participate in events happening downstairs and in the backyard, where there was seating and a small stage.
The house was a project of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Dallas-based Better Block Foundation. Through grants, the property was refurbished to offer a multi-use space that would be welcoming to Akron’s immigrants.
When it launched, Better Block hired Akronite Katie Beck, a young AmeriCorps VISTA worker, to take charge of programming. With her bosses located in Dallas, Beck was mostly free to program as she saw fit.
“The first two years I didn't have any present supervisors,” she said. “They would fly up a few times a year and we’d do little special projects. Other than that, it was purely experimenting.”
Beck’s experiments worked.
She turned the Exchange House into the city’s seat of activity for refugees who came to Akron through the federal Refugee Resettlement Program from places like Nepal, Congo, Afghanistan and South America.
Exchange House stayed busy hosting family-wellness clinics, potluck community dinners, CPR workshops, African-American, Congolese and Nepali dance lessons, bicycle safety demonstrations, a farmers market and all kinds of live performances, with many events recurring weekly or monthly. Upstairs, the Airbnb was active, Beck said.
In 2019, Beck hired Josey Jones through AmeriCorps VISTA, to help manage and program the Exchange House.
Jones was also in charge of marketing and branding, creating a monthly Exchange House newsletter and keeping social media postings active.
“It was this kind of cross-cultural interactive Visitor Center, essentially,” she said.
In January 2020, Better Block donated the Exchange House and the house next door — now the Market House — to the North Akron Community Development Corp. (NACDC), which Beck was then hired to lead as executive director.
“We had all that stuff going on, all kinds of programming, and it was building more and more,” Beck said. “Multiple things were happening every day before the pandemic.”
The Airbnb was busy as well.
“Airbnb requires a lot of attention,” said Jones, who had just become Exchange House manager just before the pandemic hit.“When COVID happened, all of that had to stop.”
And because of the way Exchange House was structured, a global pandemic was a big blow.
“Because the meat and potatoes was the in-person gatherings and events and programs,” Beck said. “There was a huge pivot.”
Rather than wait out the pandemic, Beck brainstormed with her staff and Exchange House board member and Akron-native Justin Chenault on planning for the future.
A carpenter, Chenault had lived and worked for years in Washington D.C. as a construction supervisor for contractors on federal projects, so project planning came naturally to him. Recently furloughed, Chenault had moved back to Akron.
“I loved what they were doing here, the backyard was such a vibe, I felt like I was in D.C. still, being here. All the color and the fabrics and the people, it felt real. So I knew I wanted to do more work,” he said.
Working together, the team kicked the NACDC into gear and laid plans to energize a renaissance for Temple Square.
“I think one of the things that I've learned from [Beck] is just learn how to pivot in real time. And make it smooth,” Chenault said.
With the newly acquired Market House undergoing renovation, and the Backyard expansion underway, two storefronts serendipitously opened up on Main Street, Beck said, a stone’s throw from the Exchange and Market houses.
Things happened quickly from there. By August, the team had opened NoHi, a popup, weekend restaurant on Main Street, followed in November by NoTique, an artisan boutique next door.
“I feel very fortunate that Justin and I did connect in the way we did at the time,” Beck said “because NoHi and NoTique sort of popped up from this need to engage the community.”
Over the past year, the Exchange House was transformed out of necessity, but what has evolved is in line with the NACDC’s vison for North Akron.
“We can still be an interactive visitor center but the programming will happen only in the Backyard and at the Market House,” Jones said.
The Exchange House was converted to a four-bedroom Airbnb housing up to nine guests, Jones said. The goal now is to connect people who stay in the Airbnb with programming at NoHi and NoTique.
“For example, guests will get to taste our NoHi menus before they're announced,” she said. Or visitors could take part in maker’s workshops and hands on activities.
Another change is, programming at the Market House will be open to everyone — not only immigrants.
“It's a North Hill community asset, for all of North Hill,” Jones said.
Like the early days of the Exchange House, Market House has been completely renovated, with the first floor designed for special programming and community events, Beck said.
Upper floors will house studios and office space, with the basement and third floor now maker’s spaces.
With so many women interested in crafting and sewing, the third-floor space is already outfitted with several sewing machines and a new serger embroidery machine, which uses multiple threads and cuts as well as sews, Beck said.
Beck envisions other tools being added, possibly for metals, ceramics and jewelry artists, she said.
“Since a lot of the programming we’re going to offer will be women-focused, we're hoping to help start a co-op community where women could make their goods or crafts and then sell them in our new boutique,” Beck said, referring to NoTique.
Market House programming begins this month, including early education for mothers and children. The first maker events will be for immigrant women, with future ones open to all Akron women, Beck said. Monthly memberships and day passes could also be part of Market House business plans.
Market House events can spill into the newly expanded Backyard. An entity in itself, the Backyard connects the yards of the Market and Exchange houses and, for now, extends into city lots on Main Street. The Backyard features new lighting, seating and sound system, a fire pit, and a new large, covered pavilion and stage.
A special area called a “choutara” is being created in the Backyard. In Nepal, a “choutara” is a place for quiet conversation where people go to settle disputes and lovers’ quarrels, or to just rest, Beck said.
“It's still going to be that sort of multi-use space but it's going to be way sweeter than it was,” Beck said.
To shape programming at the Airbnb, Jones is seeking input from the community on what events, formerly at the Exchange House, people want to offer Airbnb guests.
“If you ever attended an Exchange House event and thought ‘I wish there was a way to bottle this experience and take it with me’ now you can,” Jones said.
NACDC is also open to ideas about partnering with other area groups on special events to share with visitors to the Exchange House.
“If there's something that you've always wanted to do in North Hill, or there was an event that you really loved that you want to bring back, we are asking for suggestions,” Jones said.
The Exchange House, with the Backyard, is now available for rent for events like weddings, reunions, festivals, and other occasions, she said.
“We're trying to remind people that we are still community-driven and we want the community to feel like the Exchange House is theirs, and they can use it for whatever they need it for,” she said.