When Kevin Tyler and Derek Fromby heard the city approved plans to convert the site of the long-vacant Rolling Acres Mall into an Amazon fulfillment center, they thought it was the perfect opportunity to start a coffee shop on Romig Road.
It didn’t matter that “for lease” signs plague storefronts that had closed after the mall was vacated or that half-empty strip malls litter the road.
In their minds, Amazon would turn the area into a destination once again.
“When we heard Amazon was coming up at Romig Road, I wanted to open a coffee house,” Tyler says. “We heard they were looking to revitalize Romig Road with these employment opportunities and wanted to be a part of that.”
From Beanhead Brothers’ front window, patrons sipping their coffee on the burnt orange velvet couch can’t help but gawk at the 1.3 million square foot Amazon warehouse with its fleet of bright blue delivery trucks lined along the side of the building.
But those customers enjoying their lattes aren’t the Amazon employees the owners were expecting when the warehouse opened in November.
“They don’t come here,” Fromby says. “They’re speeding out of that parking lot as soon as they clock out.”
While the company boasts an “Amazon effect,” or positive, secondary economic impact of billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of jobs generated for local businesses, the struggle to capture business from the 1,500 employees filtering in and out of the Romig Road area each day is harder than anticipated. With such a large complex and short breaks, many employees don’t leave campus, business owners on Romig told The Devil Strip.
A 2018 Economic Policy Institute study found that when an Amazon fulfillment center opens, the host county gains 30% more warehousing and storage jobs, but no new net jobs overall. In other words, the jobs Amazon offers do not appear to translate into employment gains across the entire local economy.
Still, some entrepreneurs are jumping on the opportunity to set up shop on a street that will experience more traffic than it has seen in years, thanks to Amazon and a yearlong $12.8 million road reconstruction project that reconfigured traffic patterns and made the street more accessible from I-76 and I-77.
“We need to take advantage of that fact that Amazon is bringing in so many people and hiring people in the Akron area. Hopefully it will bring businesses back here,” says Joe Salem, who is opening another location of Hibachi Express at 2200 Romig Rd. in hopes of capturing Amazon and highway traffic.
“I don’t think that there are enough businesses anymore to accommodate the numbers of people that are there now,” says Salem, who will open his restaurant once his permits clear. “I really believe the area has a lot of potential. I’d like to see more retail, entertainment and restaurants. It’s been dead for a long time but I think it can come back with the right businesses.”
Tina Boyes, the executive director of Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance, says she is “cautiously optimistic” about what the fulfillment center could do for the neighborhood. While some entrepreneurs think the area needs more businesses to capture the new traffic, Boyes doesn’t think it’s quite that simple.
“Yes, there are lots of people up there, but I think it’s going to be challenging for neighborhoods like ours to engage in a way that isn’t fast food or quick pickup from a store before they go back to whatever location they came from,” she says.
After Rolling Acres Mall closed in 2008, the businesses with the most staying power were the ones that did not rely on foot or car traffic. Instead, destinations where people come regardless of location, such as salons, offices and medical services, tended to stay longer. Other mainstays include Habitat for Humanity Restore, Social Security Administration and Vantage Aging.
Sam Zulia, the property manager at Zulia Development Inc. and owner of Romig Square since 2007, says he now fields requests from all sorts of businesses interested in moving into the area, such as daycare centers for parents working at Amazon or eateries.
“After the closing of the mall, we did see a decline in the interest for people who want to be up here on the road,” says Zulia, whose plaza houses businesses such as Aldi and Beyond Expectations Barber College.
“Once [Rolling Acres] was removed and replaced, that was a big turning point,” he adds. “People saw that as a big step on the possibilities of what could become revitalized space. Certainly, I think the opportunity to be around Amazon or capture some of the employees coming in and out or vendors coming in and out is something potential tenants are excited about.”
The real challenge, Boyes and business owners say, will be engaging the Amazon employees that are currently slipping through the fingers of hopeful business owners like Fromby and Tyler.
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“It’s not built right now as a spot to go to a bar next door after work. That’s probably two, three, four years down the road, but it could happen,” says Jennifer Herrick, who owned Twisted Treats in Zulia’s Romig Plaza for three years. Her business closed up shop in 2013, before the 2015 announcement that Amazon was going to enter the area, and she is considering returning to her old location to start a new business.
Boyes says a freshly paved road and a new building is a good first step.
“It was a total empty crater of a mall sitting there blighting the neighborhood,” she says. “Someone came in to reinvest in there, put in new infrastructure, that’s a good thing.”
Amazon says they seek out “robust public infrastructure,” such as the Rolling Acres site, when determining where to place a fulfillment center.
“We are responding to customer demands and want to make sure our fulfillment centers are close to customers, but we also strategically look for robust public infrastructure, workforce and great local support,” says Andre Woodson, an Amazon spokesperson. Woodson does not live in Akron or Ohio. “We’ve found all those factors in Akron. We’re excited to join the Akron community and provide full-time, full-benefit jobs and continue to be a good neighbor.”
But not every business on the street made it to the fulfillment center’s opening.
Tawon and Patricia Burton, who own Thai Soul Fusion, reached their boiling point when the road reconstruction project stomped out much of their business. For over a year, a 1.5 mile stretch of road was under construction. With roads torn up in front of their restaurant, they lost business from irritated customers or tricky navigation across the plaza.
They decided it wasn’t worth it to wait it out for the possibility of Amazon traffic and moved to 992 Kenmore Blvd. in September. Tawon calls the move a “blessing in disguise,” as they are worried about what Amazon will do to local businesses.
“That Amazon plant didn’t do anything for the city other than they put up a new street on Romig Road, but that hurt us,” Tawon says. “They’re not for the small business. I don’t want to be pessimistic, but they’re a greedy company. Over here, it’s a lot more family-oriented and small businesses. There’s a lot of foot traffic and nice people.”
Ultimately, Boyes says, Romig Road may not be populated by small business. The southwest corner of Akron needs other resources, too, she says, including big-box stores.
A 2019 retail revitalization study commissioned by Kenmore Neighborhood Alliance analyzed categories of net demand in the primary local market area, which includes Romig Road. The study by KM Date Community Planning found a yearly unmet demand of $3.4 million for clothing and shoes, $7.9 million for general merchandise and $1.6 million for home furnishings within a 5-minute drive of 1017 Kenmore Blvd. This need has been identified separately from Amazon, and Tina thinks all those vacant storefronts on Romig Road could help meet it.
“These are dollars Akron could be capturing, but they don’t exist here,” Boyes says. “Those are exactly the kind of businesses Akron residents tend to leave Akron to find in places like Fairlawn and Green. If connected, these opportunities like Amazon could create a nice ecosystem of services and support and community if we don’t view them in a vacuum.”
Abbey Marshall covers economic development for The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.