Issue: March/April 2012
Forging the Future
University Park Alliance executive director Eric Anthony Johnson is charged with creating a bold growth plan for the 50 city blocks surrounding the University of Akron.
Driving south on state Route 8, Eric Anthony Johnson spots his favorite view of Akron. The All-America Bridge rises from the Little Cuyahoga River valley against the backdrop of the downtown skyline.
“It gives you a visual,” he says. “You can see the foundations of Akron as if it were built to be a bigger, much larger place.”
That view gives Johnson a tangible reminder of his job to help awaken a new renaissance in the city. As executive director of the University Park Alliance, Johnson is charged with transforming a 50-block urban area surrounding the University of Akron into a dynamic and pedestrian-friendly neighborhood.
If the efforts are successful, then Akron’s unique character, energy and charisma — elements of what Johnson calls its “sense of place” — will be keys to retaining local talent and attracting new capital, companies and executives. Johnson believes it’s already begun to happen. And he’s building the analytical framework to prove it.
In his first year on the job, he developed a master plan with specific timeframes and achievable short- and long-term goals, acquired land, obtained $150,000 in grants to be used toward eight blocks of 100 percent LEED-certified housing and inked a partnership with KUD International, a global economic development firm whose expertise and resources can fast-track multiple projects.
“This is not a job for me,” the 45-year-old Johnson says. “It’s who I am, really.”
He moved to Spicer Village in University Park just weeks after accepting the position in July 2010. He lives there with his wife, Franna, a chemist and full-time mom, and their 10- month-old son, Cameron.
Born in New Orleans where he started his career as a community organizer, Johnson got his bachelor’s degree from Washburn University in Topeka, Kan., his master’s from Minnesota State University at Mankato and his Ph.D. in urban affairs and public policy from the University of Delaware. He completed graduate studies through Harvard in real estate management and government leadership and is enrolled in Harvard’s Graduate School of Design.
“I’m a huge lifelong learner,” says Johnson, a former college basketball player who makes it his business to stay at the top of his game. “Why should individuals in this field be any different than any superstar doctor or accountant?”
Johnson studied what it takes to retool larger cities that have a history of declining populations and has hired research firms to run the numbers for University Park. For example, he knows that what’s being planned now could have a potential economic impact of $1.8 billion on the core city — bringing in an estimated 14,392 jobs and generating $90 million in additional tax revenues by 2030. He also knows the target price for new housing should be around $130,000, which 75,000 existing area households could afford.
“He’s a go-getter with an attitude for moving things quickly,” says Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic. “[He] treats people in the neighborhood the same way he treats everyone else. … He’s really added to the collaborative spirit here.”
Luis M. Proenza, president of The University of Akron, agrees, calling him “energy personified.”
“He is driven to success and has the knowledge to achieve it,” Proenza says. “He has done it before, and he understands urban renewal and development.”
Johnson’s previous experience includes stints as director of housing and urban development for the city of Pompano Beach, Fla.; presidential fellow and community development policy analyst for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; and real estate manager for the city of Charlotte, N.C. He worked with the Cleveland-Cuyahoga County Port Authority before joining the UPA.
“He’s a thinker,” Akron developer Tony Troppe says. “He understands what it takes to mobilize people and groups and creates a platform for talent to come in and get the job done.”
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