Vallery Hyduk moved from Toronto to Detroit because her husband went to a Jack White concert. Well, kind of. They both had a healthy dose of “Detroit fear,” as most folks do when they tour Rust Belt cities and see abandoned buildings and boarded up houses. But during a tour with Detroit Experience Factory, Vallery fell in love with Indian Village, a beautiful neighborhood in Detroit that houses historic mansions. It wasn’t just the mansions that impressed Vallery though. It was the neighborhood.
“There’s a saying in Indian Village that goes, ‘people come for the houses, but they stay because of the people.’ And it’s so true.’”
All it took to move Vallery and her family to Detroit was a tour. Vallery now owns Beautiful Bridal with Keasha Rigsby, a bridal boutique in downtown Detroit and is a proud resident of the city.
These types of game-changing interactions are what Leadership Akron wants to bring to the city through the help of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Destination Akron, a six-month pilot effort, will help connect incoming talent to our community the minute they come to Akron.
It will also challenge traditional stereotypes about Akron as a city with no opportunities and no community engagement by linking potential residents to projects or groups in Akron that may be engaging to them.
“Too often, Akron is overlooked,”Mark Scheffler, Leadership Akron President, says. “We want to create a compelling story that’s not about stereotypes based in the past, but about the present and future.”
The tours will work to solve retention problems in Akron by pairing potential residents to enthusiastic people who live and work in Akron. The tours will be tailored to the specific interests of the individuals completing the tours. For example, if someone is moving here and has an interest in engineering, Leadership Akron will pair them with someone in the technical field.
“We want them to get an authentic perspective, first hand, from somebody who’s living and thriving in Akron that can be an ambassador for it.”
The effort helps ensure that future leaders will look at Akron as a place to build their careers and families rather than a place to visit and leave. Jason Segedy, Director of Planning and Urban Development for the City of Akron, says Akron’s peak population was in 1960, when the city had 260,000 residents. Today, roughly 198,000 people live and work in Akron, but Akron’s goal is to get the population to over 200,000 people by 2020 and to 260,000 people by 2050.
Destination Akron will help get us closer to that goal. It is modeled after Detroit Experience Factory (DXF), which has changed the narrative around Detroit since its launch in 2006.
Jeanette Pierce, Executive Director and founder says her ongoing goal is to connect people to Detroit by showing them the neat projects and initiatives occurring on the ground level.
DXF has been highly successful, taking almost 100,000 people around Detroit since its founding.
“The city is not a headline,” Jeanette says. “It’s really amazing people, places and projects that frequently are not in the headlines or the news at all, though they should be because they’re that amazing and interesting.”
Jeanette says the tours are focused on telling the unique stories behind the people and small business that make up Detroit. And although facts and figures about the city come into play during the tours, Jeanette is more focused on introducing newcomers to small business owners and letting the business owners tell their stories.
This helps newcomers feel connected to the city’s narrative and makes the tours engaging because it’s not just one person vouching for the city, but many.
“We are letting them meet these people so that they get these very personal stories,” Jeanette says. “We’re off the bus, we’re in restaurants, shops, small businesses, nonprofits. We read the audience and tailor to them.”
Jeanette helped connect Vallery to Detroit through a private three hour tour of the city. Before the tour, Vallery and her husband would have never even considered Detroit as a potential place to live. All of that changed when they saw how cheap the real estate in Detroit is compared with Toronto.
Aside from helping Vallery and her husband purchase their house, Jeannette also helped Vallery start her business by connecting her to entrepreneurial resources in Detroit.
“If everyone who comes to Detroit doesn’t go to [Jeanette’s] organization, they might leave the city with the wrong impression,” Vallery says. “But if you learn from her organization, then you leave going, ‘Wow. This city has really gone through a lot and look what’s happening here now.’ It’s really a story of inspiration.’”
Although Destination Akron will mainly be focusing on attracting and keeping incoming talent, Mark hopes the pilot effort will evolve into helping current Akron residents also connect to Akron in substantial ways. DXF is open to long-time Detroiters and Jeanette enjoys challenging people who say “I don’t need a tour” because they think they know everything the city has to offer them.
If the pilot program for Destination Akron works, the tours will be opened up for current residents. A brick and mortar welcome center is another potential opportunity for Akron, as Jeanette says DXF’s community focused welcome center has helped DXF’s initiative.
For Mark, it’s about filling Akron with good neighbors.
“If we see incoming talent more enthusiastic about living here, more likely to get involved in the community, more likely to be active neighbors and see the community not just as a place they happen to be working for in this chapter of their career,” he says.