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University Park Alliance awarded nearly $8 million by Knight Foundation

By Betty Lin-Fisher
Beacon Journal business writer

The neighborhood development group University Park Alliance has been awarded nearly $8 million to continue building Akron’s urban core.

On Tuesday, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation announced it was awarding UPA a $6 million grant over five years to work with neighborhood residents, local businesses and city institutions.

The foundation is also giving UPA a $1.8 million low-interest loan, which will support the redevelopment of the area called University Square. Officials call it “a linchpin of the alliance’s master plan that will provide housing and shopping for both students and residents.”

UPA is working on a project that will be developed, built and operated through self-sustaining income. It falls under what the group calls its Master Plan to revitalize a zone in downtown, said UPA Executive Director Eric Anthony Johnson.

The project, which will be along East Exchange and Brown streets near the University of Akron, will likely be a $60 million to $70 million complex and include retail, affordable multifamily housing for professionals, office space and what is called incubation space, said Johnson.

UPA is a nonprofit group supported by the university, business partners and city and county government that has been working on the redevelopment of 50 blocks around the university since 2001.

The Miami-based Knight Foundation invests in communities where the Knight brothers owned newspapers, including the Beacon Journal. The foundation says its mission also supports ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts.

Johnson said the new grant will help the alliance “build a vibrant, engaged community in Akron where people aspire to live, work, learn and play.”

Knight Akron Program Director Jennifer Thomas said the investment recognizes the alliance’s success over the past two years in putting together its master plan.

“It’s Knight building on the momentum that Eric took over so he can really make it take off and so the UPA can help stabilize Akron for the long term,” she said. “The alliance’s efforts are galvanizing residents around a larger vision for the city, and engaging the next generation of neighborhood leaders who want to drive the city’s future.”

Johnson said the two-pronged approach is aimed at assuring redevelopment success.

“Most communities fail because they only want to do one; they only want to do the physical side. There needs to be an equal emphasis on real estate and community civic engagement led by the community,” said Johnson.

Neighborhood Network

A large and growing group called the Community Neighborhood Network, made up of leaders and members of neighborhood groups, faith-based organizations, businesses and social service agencies has been meeting monthly and in smaller groups to work on plans.

About 50 to 75 people regularly attend, said Carol Murphy, UPA chief of staff. The group has worked on identifying abandoned and blighted houses and put together a program for Christmas caroling through the streets of UPA neighborhoods on a recent evening.

Thomas said programming is a crucial part of what UPA does.

“Programming and empowering the residents is galvanizing the community. Neighborhood leadership becomes what’s driving this city’s future,” she said.

The low-interest loan will allow UPA to move forward on University Square, the first project to be developed and owned by the alliance. Profits from the project are scheduled to be a revenue stream for the alliance, said Johnson. That’s different from other UPA projects, where a private developer shares a small percentage with UPA but handles operations itself.

The UPA’s first such project is already under way at East Market and Forge streets, and is in partnership with Child Guidance Family Services for its new home.

Johnson said it can be difficult for a nonprofit organization to carry out a project the scale of University Square without any funding.

Knight doesn’t typically invest in real estate projects, “but they see the value of the work being done in Akron and see it as a tremendous plus,” Johnson said. “That’s a really good deal for UPA.”

Terms call for the investment loan to be paid off in three years with an interest rate to be determined, Johnson said.

The loan will be used for architectural and engineering work — the parts of a project that can be a struggle and where most projects fall short, said Johnson.

“That’s unheard of for a foundation to do that. They’re saying, ‘We’re going to help you get across the hurdle to have funding needed to get off the ground,’ ” he said.

Johnson said it’s important for the UPA to move forward on its model of providing its own revenue stream because while it has appreciated and relied on the Knight funding, both Knight and UPA do not envision the foundation being the alliance’s main funder long term.

$18 million total

Overall, the Knight Foundation has awarded $18 million to UPA in the last six years. The Foundation said it reflected its belief “that transformative community change takes not just vision but the tenacity and time to see it through.”

The Knight Foundation this year has given out approximately $110 million across the country. Thomas said she has awarded a little more than $9 million this year to various groups in Akron.

In a news release, Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic and other leaders praised the funding as crucial ongoing support for the downtown area.

“This is very much appreciated,” Plusquellic said. “The city has already invested $10 million to support this central area of our city, and Knight Foundation’s generous grants to the alliance will significantly boost our collaborative efforts to revitalize Akron’s urban core.”

University of Akron President Luis Proenza and Bill Considine, a Knight Foundation trustee and president and CEO of Akron Children’s Hospital, praised the UPA collaborative efforts.

“The University of Akron takes tremendous pride in the productivity of our collaborative ventures, and we are pleased that Knight Foundation continues to recognize the central role of University Park Alliance in the ongoing renewal and expansion of economic vitality in downtown Akron and the region,” Proenza said.

Collaboration

“Akron is a city that values and promotes collaboration,” Considine said. “UPA is a wonderful example of the power of collaboration, and Knight Foundation’s generous support provides affirmation to UPA’s work and the partners’ participation.”

David James, the Akron Public Schools’ superintendent and chairman of the alliance’s board of trustees, said the funding will benefit Akron for generations.

“This support secures a continuation of the long-term work of University Park Alliance while fueling execution of plans in the short term,” James said.

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/blinfisher and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty.