Jared Kiehl spent much of his childhood at the family business his father opened on Copley Road in 1952.
Now the next generation owner of Kiehl’s Garage, as well as the Copley Road car wash his dad and uncle opened in 1977, Kiehl and other property owners are holding the line on blight as businesses close and vacancies linger.
“My whole life it’s never been super bustling,” said Kiehl, who is 42 and was born as Akron’s booming economy busted. “I’ve seen a lot of businesses come and go.”
In late 2017, Kiehl purchased J & H Jaguar Service, another old garage next door. “It probably should have been knocked over,” he said of the commercial building, then vacant for three years.
After a fresh coat of paint and regular maintenance, Kiehl said: “I feel like it would be a great sandwich or pizza shop. In all reality, that neighborhood has a lot of nice small mom and pop eateries. But we have ample parking and there’s a lot of people who drive up and down that road.”
A new city program that went live Tuesday could make that vision a reality. Mayor Dan Horrigan is now taking applications from startup businesses and property owners who, if connected, could fill empty storefronts in key neighborhood business districts.
“I firmly believe that all it takes is one person showing that they care and other people will follow suit,” said Kiehl, who’s taken city help in the past to repair the exterior of his car wash and keep everything he owns “looking as nice and possible.”
There is $160,000 available in the first round of the new Rubber City Match program. Property owners and startup companies can apply for cash assistance to create a business plan, find commercial real estate, hire an architect and help with the cost of building their businesses in a vacant commercial building.
“Our small and startup businesses will fuel Akron’s revival, and supporting their success is a key pillar of my economic development strategy,” Mayor Dan Horrigan said in a press release Tuesday ahead of formally introducing the program to the public at his state of the city speech Wednesday at the John S. Knight Center.
“The Rubber City Match program will take the guesswork out of opening a new brick and mortar business — by guiding entrepreneurs through the steps to viability,” Horrigan said. “It will also help our property owners find vetted tenants who will be partners in renovating these important neighborhood corridors.”
Applications are available at www.rubbercitymatch.com. The program is modeled after a similar effort in Detroit called Motor City Match.
Akron’s version focuses limited resources — $100,000 from the city’s general fund and $60,000 in repurposed federal funds that generated little interest as micro-loans for small businesses — on 12 Great Streets areas, which are listed at www.greatstreetsakron.com. Each of these often struggling business districts once served as the economic heartbeats of local neighborhoods. Now, the Rubber City Match, on top of façade grants and public infrastructure upgrades, aim to revitalize the districts with homegrown commerce.
Mark Greer, the city’s Great Streets coordinator, said the Rubber City Match Program could help transform districts with an excess of vacant commercial buildings like Copley Road, Kenmore Boulevard, Merriman Valley, Middlebury and West Hill.
Last year, the city completed retail market analysis reports on each Great Street area, providing a roadmap to success for startup businesses. Whether born in a basement or at Bounce Innovation Hub, fledgling businesses can leverage the retail data on everything from foot traffic counts to neighborhood business profiles to find the best spot to stake their future, Greer said.
“We know what’s missing,” Greer said, “and we work really close with the community development corporations and merchants association so they can let us know what’s really needed right there on the ground.”
Property owners were recently mailed invitations to participate in the new program, which offers cash and technical assistance in four areas: business planning, real estate, design and build-out.
The city is working with Bounce to identify and help would-be startups turn ideas into business plans, or business plans into businesses. Greer and the city’s Office of Integrated Development would help connect commercial property owners with viable tenants.
The city plans to reimburse the Akron Association of Architects to help these applicants move into the design phase. Finally, the city expects to split $100,000 among about 10 applicants to help with the cost of renovating now empty retail and office space.
Eligible applicants must cover 10% of construction costs. Three community lenders — Asia Services in Action Inc., HFLA of Northeast Ohio and ECDI (Economic Community Development Institute) — have agreed to supply capital, especially to traditionally underserved entrepreneurs. The city would cover any remaining cost with the build-out grants.
The application window for this round ends April 2. The city plans to gauge interest at that point before deciding whether to bring the program back next year.
While lack of applicants led the city to scrap the micro-loan program in this third year of Great Streets programs, a facade grant program has taken off. Greer said the grants to fix up and maintain the exterior of commercial properties has received $1.3 million this year, up from less than $400,000 in the last round. Facade grant awards will be announced March 6.
Reach Beacon Journal reporter Doug Livingston at firstname.lastname@example.org or 330-996-3792.