Firestone Park Business Owners and Natives Team Up to Revitalize Neighborhood
words and photos by Noor Hindi
As a kid, Tara Koontz loved climbing trees and living within their thick, leafy branches. Growing up in Firestone Park, she spent most of her summers outside, walking the cracked concrete of Aster Avenue, indulging in ice cream from the Dairy Freeze and playing kickball with her friends.
Today, she remembers these memories each time she parks her car in front of Mod A Salon, her business. She still hangs out with her grade school friends, grabbing burgers at Ido Bar & Grill, or coffee at A Walk in the Park Café.
“I’m a proud Firestone Park resident,” she says. “I like this this isn’t a place of chains, I like that it’s small businesses. Our clients are more friends than colleagues. We promote each other and support each other.”
Tara has owned Mod A Salon since 2004. In the last 14 years, she’s seen the ups and downs of the neighborhood. She’s watched businesses leave the Aster Avenue business district, houses become foreclosed and residents move away from the area.
Through it all, she’s stayed optimistic.
“We have some good bones near us and I would hate to see this neighborhood dwindle.”
Despite past setbacks, Firestone Park is experiencing some good changes. With the new Kenmore/Garfield High School being built within the area, and the new coffee shop, A Walk in the Park Café, residents are hoping the area will continue moving in the right direction. Aside from this, Mark Porpora, owner of Goodman’s Service Center, has plans to expand his business.
“I just bought the house next door and had that torn down so I can add on because business is taking off and I need more room.”
This sentiment is opposite of what Shiv “Sam” Bhardwaj, owner of Firestone Mini-Mart, noticed three years ago. Sam has owned Firestone Mini-Mart for 13 years.
“Three years ago, there was a lot of businesses that was empty,” he says. “But now, they’re getting filled.”
According to Ward 7 Councilman Donnie Kammer, total population in Firestone Park decreased by 4.34% between 2000 and 2010, and then by 1.88% between 2010 and 2014, which consequently affected the business district.
But Mod A Salon, Firestone Mini-Mart, Goodman’s and other businesses like Park Place Pub and Boardwalk Thrift have stuck around despite the insecurity of the business district and the neighborhood.
Most recently, they’ve been working with Donnie to revitalize the neighborhood and identify problems they can tackle together. Tara is currently working with Donnie on making Aster and Reed Ave historic districts in Akron. Designating them as business districts would allow the Firestone Park area more opportunities for grants and put Firestone Park in the spotlight a little more.
The City of Akron is in the process of approving the designation.
“The historic designation would include grant funding that we as a city and business owners can apply for. Because we as a city only have so much money to stretch,” says Donnie.
Tara is also in the process of creating a neighborhood alliance with other members and business owners in the community. As kids, Tara and others saw the area at its best and hope to see it return to the strong neighborhood it once was.
“This was booming when we were kids,” says Mark. “I’m hoping to see it better than where it is because I’m serving life with no parole. I’m not leaving. My flag is set here. I like the area, I like the people. It’s kind of like a mafia. Once you’re in, you can’t get out.”
One problem that they’re all trying to tackle is bringing in younger families to the area and encouraging them to buy their homes, rather than rent. Right now, the average age of Firestone Park residents is around 40, and the area is in need of younger blood. But with most of the homes within the FP neighborhood built before the 1940’s and through the 1950’s, many of the houses either need rebuilt or significantly repaired, presenting a challenge for young families.
“I think houses that were built in the 20’s, 30’s, 40’s are built much nicer than the ones built now and you can’t afford to build them that way now, so preservation, I think, would be great,” says Tara.
Councilman Donnie Krammer says the neighborhood has struggled to compete with other areas in Akron that are booming right now, like Highland Square. Despite this, he’s confident the new high school will boost the area.
Moving forward, he’d like to see “more people step up, get engaged in their community and take back their community, invest in it.”