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On the rebound in Rubber Town

As he leads tours, Larry Pentecost, step-on guide and unofficial ambassador for Akron, Ohio, spends a good bit of time righting wrong-headed thinking about his city.

His message is this: The town that rubber built has not rusted out. And like any good public defender, Pentecost has proof to support his claim.

A quick look at Akron

Akron Summit Convention and Visitors Bureau
77 E. Mill St.
Akron, OH 44308
(800) 245-4254 or (330) 374-7560

What’s new: The University of Akron is expanding its urban campus and has bought the Quaker Square Inn, turning more than half of the hotel’s guest rooms into residence hall rooms. Lock 3 Live! is an outdoor performance venue in downtown Akron. The Akron Art Museum’s John S. and James L. Knight Building, an ultramodern addition to its original 19th century structure, opened two years ago to architectural acclaim. Rooms: More than 5,000 hotel rooms, most in outlying areas. There are about 300 hotel rooms near downtown’s John S. Knight Convention Center. The city has reportedly talked to developers about another downtown hotel, but it’s doubtful any deal will be struck until the economy improves.

Rooms: More than 5,000 hotel rooms, most in outlying areas. There are about 300 hotel rooms near downtown’s John S. Knight Convention Center. The city has reportedly talked to developers about another downtown hotel, but it’s doubtful any deal will be struck until the economy improves.

Location: Akron is in northeast Ohio, 34 miles south of Cleveland. The city is 110 miles west of Pittsburgh, 127 miles northeast of Columbus, 192 miles southeast of Detroit, 259 miles northeast of Indianapolis and 311 miles northwest of Washington. Transportation: The city can be reached by interstates 71, 76 and 77, and the Ohio Turnpike. Akron-Canton Airport is 15 minutes from downtown and is served by major carriers, as well as low-cost airlines AirTran Airways and Frontier Airlines. Cleveland Hopkins International Airport is a 40-minute drive.

Transportation: The city can be reached by interstates 71, 76 and 77, and the Ohio Turnpike. Akron-Canton Airport is 15 minutes from downtown and is served by major carriers, as well as low-cost airlines AirTran Airways and Frontier Airlines. Cleveland Hopkins International Airport is a 40-minute drive.

Evidence supports claims of renewal

He offers as evidence the University of Akron and its more than $300 million investment in an urban campus that includes a new downtown football stadium; Goodyear Tire’s decision to build its new headquarters in Akron; Firestone’s announcement that it will build a new research and development center there; a $30 million AA baseball park; and a progressive airport that consistently offers the state’s lowest average fares.  On the cultural side, a glamorous downtown theater saved from the wrecking ball; a new addition to the art museum that has garnered architectural acclaim; and a rapidly expanding zoo.

“For a city that is supposed to be sick and dying, we are doing a lot of building,” said Pentecost. “I told a couple of travel writers the other day, ‘Akron’s obituary has been written more than once; it has never been published.’

Akron is a city known for making things. Most everyone remembers its ties to rubber and tires; few realize that the city was also once the monarch of toy marbles, home to 36 companies that turned out the rolling toy wonders.

With so much focus on manufacturing, it is only natural that Akron is in the midst of remaking itself, moving from “a smokestack economy to a high-tech economy,” as Pentecost likes to say.

Decrease in hotel rooms downtown

Meeting and convention business is being affected by some of those changes, especially in downtown Akron.

Downtown is home to the city’s John S. Knight Convention Center, which had 500 downtown hotel rooms to support it until the University of Akron purchased the Quaker Square Inn two years ago.

The university bought the hotel because it needed more residence-hall space; so far, it has taken about half of the hotel’s 200 rooms. By the end of this year, there will be 65 hotel rooms, but those rooms will be retained indefinitely, said Quaker Square general manager Jeff Lynch.

The stars are always shining bright at the Akron Civic Center, where the best venue is the stage, roomy enough for dinners for 200.
Courtesy Akron Summit CVB

The university realizes that the hotel will help create “more vibrancy” downtown; there will also be demand for those rooms when the school’s football stadium opens this fall.

Quaker Square is more than a hotel; it is an icon, built in silos that once held the product of the Quaker Oats Co.

The only other hotel downtown is the 274-room City Centre Hotel. There are rumors that other hotel developers are interested in building downtown, but locals believe there’s little chance of new development soon because of the economy.

Having fewer downtown hotel rooms has caused the the Knight Center to adopt a new strategy.

 “When that [downsizing of Quaker Square] took place, we changed focus on the kind of business to go after,” said Dirk Breiding, the center’s vice president of sales.

The convention center continues to pursue meetings and conventions but is placing more emphasis on what Breiding calls “unorthodox events,” from kickboxing and car auctions to women’s roller derby matches.

“We are trying to think out of the box as to how to sell the convention center,” said Breiding. “We will continue with what works for us right now but still go after convention business.”

The city is in pursuit of some high-profile business, most notably the 2014 International Gay Games, an Olympic-style competition for gay athletes. Together with Cleveland, its neighbor 40 minutes north, Akron is vying against Washington and Boston for the games, which draw 15,000 athletes.

It’s a good example of Akron’s growing confidence in the sports event sector. The hometown of NBA star LeBron James, Akron is already the site of the King James Shooting Star Classic, organized by James’ former coach, Drew Joyce. The competition draws 500 boys’ and girls’ teams from across the country.

The Akron-Summit County CVB began seriously courting sports competitions six years ago. “In the last three years, we’ve seen the fruits of our labors,” said Mary Tricaso, the bureau’s director of sales.
To handle larger sports tournaments, Akron, Canton, Kent and Medina two years ago formed an alliance called Sports Ohio.

Suburbs are convention strongholds

Although downtown Akron is sparse on hotel rooms, several suburban areas have long been convention strongholds.

Among them is Fairlawn, northwest of the city near Interstate 77; it is home to the 203-room Hilton Akron Fairlawn and the adjacent 91-room Four Points Sheraton Akron West. RDA Hotel Management operates both hotels and will soon convert the Four Points to a Doubletree, another Hilton brand.

“The Montrose/Fairlawn area is our largest cluster of hotels,” said Tricaso.

Reflagging the Doubletree gives meeting planners a more unified product, according to Rennick Andreoli, RDA president. “Now, instead of a 200-room Hilton, we’ll have a 300-room Hilton with 25,000 square feet of meeting space.”

Among the hotels’ selling points is their location across from Summit Mall, the area’s largest shopping center; about $50 million was spent recently to renovate it. “We are just in the best part of Akron,” said Andreoli.

The Grand Lobby at the Akron Museum of Art is "very big city," says party planner Sue Parker.
Courtesy Akron Summit CVB

Another meeting property with a winning location is the Sheraton Suites Akron/Cuyahoga Falls. The 209-suite property was built 20 years ago next to the Cuyahoga River, about three miles from downtown Akron.

Features such as the Cascade Overlook, which cantilevers over the river’s falls and is often used for overflow dining, and water-view balconies in some rooms continue to charm guests. The hotel has 23,000 square feet of meeting space.

The five local businessmen who own the hotel last year invested $7 million in renovations and brought in GF Management to run it. In the first quarter of this year, the hotel was No. 1 among Sheraton hotels for guest scores.

Debbie Smith, director of sales and marketing, came from a similar sales job in Cleveland, and she’s been impressed by the level of business the Akron property does.

“In what would be considered a third tier, I see more hustle and bustle in this property than when I was working in a downtown hotel in Cleveland.”

High-flying airport famous for low fares

A rising star on Akron’s stage is the Akron-Canton Airport, 15 miles south of downtown. For the past decade, CAK has had the lowest average passenger fares in Ohio.

A focus on keeping fares low and customer service high has been a key, said Kristie Van Auken, senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer.

Free wireless Internet access and “TSA agents who know the names of frequent travelers,” are among the features that set Akron-Canton apart, said Van Auken.

Another asset is the presence of AirTran Airways. “The straw that stirs the drink here is AirTran Airways,” Van Auken said. “It moves 60,000 passengers a month to six nonstop destinations with 12 departures a day to places people want to go to or come from.”

AirTran plans to expand further, hoping to add two more destinations in the next year. Other carriers hope to do the same at an airport that is seeing a good year despite the economy.

Akron-Canton’s passenger base has grown 275 percent in 10 years. “Last year was our best year in our history, and now we are ahead of that, 3 percent over last year,” said Van Auken.

The airport is growing physically as well, expanding a runway so it can handle flights to and from Mexico, Canada and the Caribbean.

“Not that we have anyone knocking on the door to go to Mexico right now [in terms of airlines]. But in the event they do, we are going to be ready,” Van Auken said.

Akron-Canton’s 10-year, $110 million expansion also includes its screening area, food-and-beverage outlets and parking, all with passengers’ needs and comfort in mind.

“We can get people here from all over the country at a price they can afford. That is strategic for us, particularly now,” Van Auken said. “My guess is that meeting planners are looking for affordable venues to have their meetings.”

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Akron’s attractions rock too

Cleveland tends to grab the headlines as home to the Rock ’n’ Roll Hall of Fame, the NBA’s Cavaliers and baseball’s Indians, but Akron has its share of attractions.

The most historic, tied directly to Akron’s industrial heritage, is Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens. The 65-room English Tudor-revival mansion was built for Frank A. Seiberling, co-founder of Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.

Meeting space there doesn’t echo the home’s Tudor style, but it is interesting, nonetheless. The largest space, the Manor Hall Auditorium, for 200, was the home’s gymnasium. Its unexpected feature is “a fireplace that’s bigger than your kitchen,” said Katie Campbell, vice president of marketing.

The Carriage House Auditorium, in the estate’s carriage house, can accommodate 100, with additional room in a tent that can be entered through french doors.

A new option is the Corbin Conservatory, a glass-encased tropical garden. Like the Tropics, the conservatory can be rather humid. But in the dark of winter, the space is a welcome respite. “When the sun is out, it can be pretty bright,” said Campbell. “In March or April, when it isn’t so lovely outside, it is beautiful inside.”

It was a new direction for the historic property, where exhibits are typically “observed but not interacted with,” said Campbell.

This year’s exhibit is 11 doghouses custom made by architects. A number of canine-related programs — lectures, dog massages and dog walks — are also being held. The exhibits have boosted attendance and membership (there’s now a membership for canines).

“People are under the challenge for historic house museums,” Campbell said. “You have to change, or you will die. The challenge is to — without compromising your mission — find ways to engage more people.”

Zoo adds animals and event venues

At the Akron Zoo an influx of funds from a new tax has allowed the zoo to make some dramatic improvements, according to David Barnhardt, director of marketing and guest services.

In addition to boosting its animal population by 130 percent, the zoo has built an education center with an indoor/outdoor cafe and classrooms as well as an octagonal event venue for 50 in its gardens, where more than 7,000 plants and shrubs native to northeast Ohio grow.

Plentiful picnic areas scattered throughout the zoo make after-hours events popular. A new feature to be added near one of those is a carousel, with hand-carved wooden animals representing endangered species.

Visitors meet an owl during an event at the Akron Zoo, which has expanded rapidly in the past decade.
Courtesy Akron Zoo

Back in downtown Akron, fans of two cultural venues extend beyond the arts community.

At the Akron Museum of Art, party planner Sue Parker said, “I get calls daily. It is the most unique venue in Akron — all glass and steel — very big-city.”

Because of the economy, more calls come from brides than from big corporations these days, but when groups meet across the street at the Knight Center, the art museum and its expansion is a natural for after-hours events.

Using gardens more aggressively

Two years ago, the estate began using its gardens more “aggressively” to help boost attendance, said Campbell. First came Tremendous Tree Houses, a collection of 13 ADA-accessible tree houses into which visitors could climb.

Gardens, a carriage house and a tropical conservatory are options for meetings and events at Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens, the former estate of a Goodyear Tire cofounder.
Courtesy Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens

Most opt for the Grand Lobby for parties, sit-down dinners and what Parker calls “dignified picnics.”

When the weather is warm, a covered terrace adjacent to the lobby can be put to use.

Art in the lobby is sparse, but that’s not a detriment. “The building is art,” Parker said.

Akron Civic Theatre takes a bow

Another artful attraction is the Akron Civic Theatre, opened in 1929. Coated with gild and topped by a star-filled faux sky, the 2,580-seat theater is one of five remaining atmospheric theaters of its size in the country.

“Often groups set up their food-and-beverage stations in different levels, and people go from place to place, moving around to see the architectural features of the building,” said Howard Parr, executive director.

The theater doesn’t have a kitchen, so “catering is not impossible, but it is not easy,” Parr said.

Among the most interesting venues in the theater is its stage, with room for 200-person dinners.

The theater stage is just one example of the many ways that a city more tied to mundane manufacturing than artistic flourish continues to dazzle, surprise and offer unexpected delights.

“The whole building is unique, but to actually sit on the stage where you can look out on where the audience would sit — well, you never get to do that,” said Parr.