by Ron Newlin '76
Anyone who has ever visited a place where they lived 25 or 30 years ago looks for the things that haven’t changed, and takes note of the things that have. With a lot of small towns, the changes can be discouraging … but when that town is Akron, it’s heartening how many of the changes are positive.
And if you were going to arrange a tour of Akron, you couldn’t pick a better guide than lifelong Valley resident Kirk Robinson (TVHS ’77). In fact, Robinson is who one famous visitor asked to ride shotgun and point out the sights back in 2004.
“I did get to give Mitch Daniels the tour when he was campaigning for Governor. He had his driver take that RV all over town,” said Robinson in a recent interview -- while speculating that the candidate was probably late for his next appointment in Plymouth.
The fact is, Akron has more to “show off” than most towns its size these days. For that, it has a fairly robust industrial base to thank. More importantly, though, it has a remarkable level of volunteerism and civic engagement – which Robinson epitomizes. He was President of the Akron Chamber of Commerce for seven years, sat on 17 Fourth of July Committees and chaired seven, has been on the board of the Northern Indiana Community Foundation and President of its service committees for nearly four years, and has been a member of an active Lions Club since 1979. Last year he was one of the inaugural ten Valley Distinguished Alumni. And for thirteen years he’s been President of an organization called the Akron Revitalization Committee – about which, more later.
“To make all this successful takes some corporate backing, not only monetarily, but time,” Robinson said, crediting Pike Lumber Company, where he is Purchasing Manager, for encouraging and allowing him to be so involved. “Civic duty is part of Pike Lumber’s mission statement.”
Of course, Robinson is predisposed to stay busy. The Atwood native and product of Mentone elementary and Talma Junior High graduated from Valley on a Saturday in May of 1977 – and started taking classes at Indiana University South Bend the following Monday.
“Once I started my senior year in the fall of ’76,” Robinson laughed, “I went to school for three and a half years straight.” In four semesters and two summers he completed his general classes, and then enrolled in the Indiana College of Mortuary Science.
“I took one week off in there,” he acknowledged, “And then I got married the next week after that,” to classmate Kim Duzenbery. After four years managing the Sheetz Funeral Home for Darrell King, he had the opportunity to join Pike Lumber Company in 1983, and he’s been there ever since. Meanwhile, he and Kim raised two children – Kyle (TVHS ’01) and Kara, who graduated from Lakeland Christian
Academy. And he’s also found time to referee over 3300 high school basketball and volleyball games, including ten state finals.
So, most small towns have service clubs and chambers of commerce. What Akron has that most towns it’s size do not is an organization quite like the Akron Revitalization Committee (ARC). ARC was created in 1998 when the Lilly Endowment made a $100,000 grant through the Northern Indiana Community Foundation to create this entity – a private, non-profit organization with the mission to encourage and facilitate the renovation of properties, downtown and otherwise – or in some cases, to do it themselves.
Lilly Endowment didn’t dictate ARC’s actions, but they had some expectations. “They didn’t want us to just go buy a statue,” Robinson chuckled.
“Akron became one of their success stories,” Robinson stated. He joined a committee that included business leaders, two engineers, and a CPA, and while the organization went through the legal steps of incorporating and establishing by-laws, Robinson and his colleagues attended Main Street seminars, and visited peer communities like Roanoke and Farmersburg, south of Terre Haute. They met with stakeholders at all hours – including a 10:30 PM meeting with the CEO of Woodlawn Hospital that resulted in Woodlawn building a clinic in Akron.
“We learned that one of the death knells to small-town downtowns was having slum hotels in storefronts. We fought that by buying out the landlords with first-floor living quarters.”
“We knocked one of them down, and brought in Rochester Telephone Company to build a brand new building with fiber-optic technology, but with a design that fit with early 1900s Akron.”
Robinson also pointed to the Downtown Community Square, where the town built a small park with a bandstand in a vacant lot just east of the main intersection. “Now we have music on the square at least once a month. We’ve even had a couple of weddings there.”
Today downtown Akron still has a couple of vacant storefronts, and a couple of buildings are still in need of renovation. But in an era when many people talk about small towns drying up and blowing away, Akron is relatively vibrant.
“I think we’re particularly proud that we have lots of choices for people,” Robinson said. “We have two banks, two funeral homes, two chiropractors, two hospital clinics. We have a choice of telephone providers, internet, and cable TV.”
The town also still has evening dining options. On a weekend evening, Robinson said, “you’ll see license plates from all over the state,” parked outside of Sloane’s downtown. And I recently discovered that at the Country Kitchen on the east edge of town you can’t find a seat between 5 and 6 PM on a Friday … and that the locals still call it “The Fluff.”
The old three-story red brick high school has been gone for 25 years, but the elementary school still bustles. The Methodist Church and the Church of God both have expanded. So has the Akron Public Library on East Rochester Street – where Velma Bright recently retired after an astounding 69-year career that started in 1941.
Probably the most striking new development in Akron is the Akron Community Center in Pike Memorial Park.
“We did win a half-million dollar federal grant, but we declined it when we found some of the strings attached,” which the board feared would increase the cost of the project more than the value of the grant. “So we just decided to let it go and raise more money.”
The community center complements the park, which is itself a long-standing public private partnership. D.A. Pike donated the land to the city in the 1950s, so “the park is city property,” Robinson pointed out, and city employees mow and maintain it. “But its improvements have not been tax-based.” ARC and the Pike Memorial Park Trustees are currently in the midst of another $500,000 in improvements, including new playground equipment, a soccer field, and new restrooms.
Robinson is aware of some of the businesses that have been lost – multiple gas stations and insurance carriers, and a second grocery, for instance. Akron isn’t immune to economic forces, it’s just beating the odds.
“We still have our major industry – Pike, Sunoco, the Foundry, Akron Concrete. Our per capita income is the highest in the county.”
“We still have our school, that’s very important. And we’ve fought hard and we still have our downtown.”
“We created a ten-year list,” after ARC was formed, Robinson said. “I’d say we’ve accomplished 95% of that list.”
Today other towns contact Robinson for tips on how Akron has done it.
“It takes two things,” Robinson tells them. “Patience, and some kind of corporate backing. I’m not saying it can’t be done without a corporation leading the way, but you’re going to need some deep pockets somewhere.”
Patience and pockets. Fortunately, Akron has its share of both.