AKRON—The land around where Firestone's headquarters and plant once hummed, about a mile south of downtown Akron, probably has never looked worse.
And that's just fine with local officials hoping to redevelop it into Firestone Business Park.
Things have to get ugly before they can get better, they say, referring to the demolition that's going on in much of the old industrial complex.
"No one likes to look at the rubble, but I also see potential when I see that. … I know that's clearing the path for good stuff," Summit County deputy law director Greta Johnson said. "With the demolition that's happening right now, there's some additional mess. But when I see demolition, I see jobs," she added.
Johnson and others say the site is making progress toward becoming something other than what it has been in recent years, which is mostly a home for shuttered factories, a source of delinquent real estate taxes and a stark reminder of business the city has lost.
Every day, folks like Johnson—who drives past the site on her way to work—say they see more progress. That progress might be more broken cement or piles of fill dirt amassing on now vacant lots, but it's a necessary step toward what is envisioned for the site.
And now the county and the city of Akron, which owns part of the site, have a champion on their side, one they say already has accelerated the pace of redevelopment: APV Engineered Coatings.
The company, in addition to spending millions during the past couple of years to expand and improve its own facilities adjacent to the site, so far has spent about $3 million acquiring and cleaning up other properties in and around the area, APV president Tom Venarge said.
That includes paying for the cost of the recent demolition of the old Burger Iron plant, which the city owned but did not have the funds available to demolish.
Venarge came up with a proposition: The Burger site included a newer 32,000-sq.-ft. building that was still in good shape. APV desperately needed more warehouse space to accommodate its growth.
"(The city was) stuck with an 8-acre facility that's 100 years old, and it's hideous," Venarge said. "The best thing to do is tear it down, but the city doesn't have the money to do that. … We said, 'Hey, we want to be good neighbors, and we want the area to look nice. How about we pay for the demolition, and in return for the demolition, we get that building?' They said, 'Deal!' "
That building is gone now, and on much of its former site APV has paid to bring in almost 500 dump trucks of new fill while removing acres of old concrete. Now the city has a lot it can sell as buildable, Venarge said.
All told, there are about 18 acres of the site now ready for development. APV owns about 12 of them, and the city owns the rest, Venarge said. At $25,000 an acre, companies are already starting to express interest, because good industrial lots are in short supply in Akron right now, he added. That's one reason he wants to be able to build on more of his site as well.
For now, though, Venarge is a poster child for local economic developers, including with the city and Summit County, who are also beginning to show off the site. His company is growing right where it is, in the middle of the current mess, and has been for quite a few years.
APV employs about 100 people and does about $30 million in annual sales—up from 28 people and sales of $6 million in about 1990. He tells whoever will listen that the site is a great place for a business serving other industries, like his industrial coatings company, and has even made a video with his father that the county uses to market the site.
"The Venarge family has been leading the charge for a decade or more in terms of revitalizing that Firestone park business area. They've been real champions," Johnson said.
County economic development director Connie Krauss said the county has been working with APV for more than a year on the project, "on creating an industrial park and cleaning up the area."
APV has a definite vision for the proposed park, Venarge said.
"We don't want Firestone Parkway to exist between Emerling Avenue and Coal (Avenue) … We've got people crossing Firestone Parkway twice a day. We want it to be a campus," he said.
But his ambitions don't end there. He'd like to see the area along adjacent South Main Street get redeveloped, possibly into more mixed uses, like stores and restaurants.
Toward that end, APV has been buying lots, including some old homes, along South Main.
"We want to have some control of that property. We don't necessarily want the homes, although some of our employees did live there for a while," Venarge said. "But it's just time to improve this section of Main Street."
It's not philanthropy, though, Venarge insisted.
"It's kind of a selfish story really. We're interested in our continued growth here," he said while giving a recent tour of his company's facilities and the city's property at the site.
This time he was with a reporter, but on several occasions he's taken company executives from manufacturers who are interested in possibly locating to the site and want to know when it will be more accessible.
That likely will be in about a year, when the city completes the reconstruction of Main and Broadway streets. That project will also give the city easy access to I-76 and I-77, Venarge noted.
The site already has rail access, available high-voltage power and up-to-date fiber-optic lines, Akron economic development director Sam DeShazior said when discussing the property in May.
In the meantime, the Venarges and officials from the city and county work to improve the site with new utilities, creating larger buildable parcels and devising plans for how the industrial park might be laid out.
"This is true collaboration. Not one entity participating in this could do it without the others," Johnson said. "APV can't do it without the city, the city can't do it without the county, and it just goes all the way around the table."
Krauss said she has little doubt the site will soon attract tenants. Local commercial real estate agents have been saying for at least a couple of years that there's not enough manufacturing space, and she said that's working in favor of the industrial park's development.
"It's industrial. And, quite frankly, if you look at the space we need for business, we need industrial space more than anything, and that's why this park is going to happen. When people look for industrial sites, they're not available in the city—or really even in Northeast Ohio," Krauss said.