Crain’s Cleveland Business

Analysis: Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan will be tough act to follow

Akron Mayor Dan Horrigan, who on Tuesday, Oct. 4, announced he will not seek re-election when his current term ends next year, gets high marks from local business and civic leaders who have long followed the city’s politics. He also leaves some important initiatives they hope his successor will continue.

Horrigan hasn’t been perfect, they say. But he moved the ball forward on important issues ranging from health care in the city to development downtown and elsewhere. And he did much of it, they note, while grappling with unprecedented issues they say would challenge, if not topple, most any city leader.

The points in Horrigan’s favor include reviving the downtown Bowery project, linking it with a new developer in Welty Building Co., and turning the $40-plus million project and its 92 apartments into a downtown anchor.

He also gets credit for spurring residential development across the city with a housing tax-abatement program, helping the city’s hospitals grow, improving health care equity, and supporting the city’s neighborhoods and community development organizations.

Overall, life and business conditions in Akron have improved under Horrigan, say business and civic leaders, who are still supportive of the mayor.

On the downside, his supporters say he might have done a better job managing construction on the city’s big Main Street redevelopment project, which significantly improved the appearance of downtown’s central corridor but took more than two years to complete.

He also saw the city shut down due to COVID and the shooting of Akron resident Jayland Walker by city police officers in June, followed by protests that kept parts of downtown shuttered even after the construction and pandemic had passed. Those last issues were not Horrigan’s fault, they note, but the buck always stops at the mayor’s office.

“He was definitely more open to meeting and talking. We would have liked to have seen a more developed plan for the downtown development,” said Welty CEO Don Taylor. “But there’s been a lot going on since he was mayor. Main Street was torn up for years, then we had COVID, then we had the protests; there were a lot of distractions. So, it’s been a bucking bronco for this mayor to ride.”

But Taylor gives Horrigan credit for helping to guide Bowery to its finish and, more importantly, for emphasizing the need for Akron to rebuild some of the population it has lost in recent decades and to incentivize people to build and live in town with a 15-year abatement on new construction and residential improvements.

“I think there’s a direct correlation between the activity we’ve seen and the incentive of the abatement,” Taylor said, “especially downtown in the central corridor.”

Dave Lieberth is known to many Akronites as a former broadcast journalist and to local leaders for 40 years of civic involvement and as a confidant and adviser to every mayor since he organized the inauguration of Tom Sawyer in 1984. He said Horrigan was the right mayor at the right time when he came to office following the turbulent final year of former Mayor Don Plusquellic in 2015 and the two mayors who replaced Plusquellic for very short periods.

“His temperament and personality made a huge impact,” Lieberth said. “City Hall was somewhat in disarray when he took office, having had three mayors in 45 days. … So first he had to stabilize everything, and he did.”

Lieberth said Horrigan had good years between 2016 and 2020, when he got the majority of his accomplishments done and repaired relationships within the city and between Akron and neighboring Cuyahoga Falls and Tallmadge. Lieberth hopes those achievements aren’t overshadowed by the COVID pandemic and downtown protests that have come since.

“I think he has a lot of accomplishments to his name. It’s like the Olympics. You have to take the high with the lows, and the low was certainly this year,” Lieberth said.

Lieberth also said Horrigan “moved the needle” when it comes to improving health care equity in Akron. But he believes the mayor’s standout accomplishments have been to reinvigorate residential development and to manage the city’s federally mandated sewer project, which originally had a price tag of $1.6 billion and now is expected to cost about $1.2 billion to complete.

Horrigan doesn’t get enough credit for shaving hundreds of millions of dollars from that bill, Lieberth maintains. Residents have been focused on increased sewer rates, but their rates are not higher than other Ohio cities and would be higher if the project had not been well-managed, Lieberth said.

He agrees that the Main Street construction took too long, and that when the long construction was followed by COVID shutdowns, it proved more than many downtown businesses could withstand.

But downtown has also seen significant investments, he said, and is improving as a place to live, visit and work.

“The Bowery Project simply would not have happened without him, so he gets an A+ on that. The Bowery lay fallow under the previous three mayors,” Lieberth said. “Also, Stark State built their Akron campus, and Summa built a $60 million tower. … For the first time in years, there are people walking dogs downtown.”

Of course, what’s important now is what will happen next: Who will be Akron’s next mayor, and what will be their priorities?

In business circles at least, there’s hope that the next mayor will continue to push for more residential development and population growth, while also addressing challenges such as finishing the sewer project and establishing a police-conduct review system that meets residents’ concerns.

Some in the business community already are beginning to support Marco Summerville, Akron’s deputy mayor who announced his candidacy Wednesday, Oct. 5, and was endorsed by Horrigan the next day.

“We have some good momentum on downtown housing, and that needs to continue. That’s an area where Marco will be valuable because he knows these developers and has worked with them many times,” said Bill Considine, a former president and CEO of Akron Children’s Hospital who remains a civic leader. “You need a person who knows how to play in the sandbox with others.”

But it’s early in the selection process, and other candidates, such as Akron City Councilman Shammas Malik, also may be strong contenders in the upcoming race — especially among more progressive Democrats.

Greater Akron Chamber president and CEO Steve Millard echoed others when he praised Horrigan for collaborating well with business and other civic leaders. Whoever becomes the next mayor needs to continue in that spirit, he said.

“It’s a big job that will take energy, ideas and a commitment to stay on track amidst a lot of potential distraction,” Millard said via email. “We need someone with a willingness to continue as an active leader and supporter of the collaborative work we are doing. We need someone that will manage a strong team of leaders within their administration and continue to look to a broader ecosystem of partners and collaborators to help set the vision and share in the work to be done.”

Jerry Fiume, managing director of SVN Summit Commercial Real Estate Advisors in Akron, said the collaborative spirit Horrigan brought to the mayor’s office needs to continue.

“I just came out of a meeting with a developer with two projects in Akron, and they love the collaboration they see here. That makes Akron look good,” Fiume said. “Hopefully, the next mayor will also be progressive and keep Akron moving forward.”

Fiume, like others, gives Horrigan high marks.

“It’s easy to be a Monday morning quarterback,” Fiume said. “But at the end of the day, he made things happen.”

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