AKRON, Ohio -- It's been a plan forwarded by many in cities large and small across the country, a cure for the ailments of a stalled or depressed economy.
Build a new downtown ballpark, the theory went, and all will be right with the world. People will flock to the park, the surrounding downtown area will be infused with energy and business opportunities, and the city, led by "insert ballpark name here," will lift itself by the proverbial bootstraps and return to vibrant days gone by.
In reality, sometimes it works (think Camden Yards in Baltimore), and sometimes it doesn't (think Comerica Park in Detroit). The Minor Leagues have seen varying degrees of success as well. The folks here in Akron, it seems, have hit paydirt with their Canal Park.
"We put the down in downtown," said Mark Williamson, the director of communications for Akron Mayor Don Plusquellic, who helped push for the construction of the park a decade ago. "Downtown had nothing for such a long time. There was nowhere to go but up."
The history of Akron in the latter half of the 20th century until now mirrors that of any post-industrial city, particularly in the Midwest. In the 1920s and '30s, this was one of the fastest growing cities in the country, the boom led by the rubber (in the form of tires) industry. In the 1960s and '70s, however, things started to shift. The large corporations -- the BF Goodriches of the world -- started relocating, partially to avoid what they felt was the nuisance of dealing with strong unions. That left thousands of people out of work and plunged the city into a depression. Many people were forced to leave, looking for work, and in many ways the city never recovered.
Akron's downtown area was basically abandoned after big business packed up and left. So when Mayor Plusquellic started talking about a stadium for a Minor League team, more than one eyebrow was raised here and elsewhere.
"About half the people thought we were crazy," Williamson said. "A lot of cities called us and said, 'Don't do it, it never works.'
"A lot of people here have a depression mentality. They want to hoard money and never spend it, waiting for the bottom to fall out. But it's goverment's job to create opportunities, not to save and invest."
So Canal Park was built, with plenty of input from Plusquellic, keeping the industrial history of the city in mind with his architecture. Rather than stick out like a shiny new thumb, the brick exterior fits perfectly with the city's gritty feel.
Like with many new ballparks, initial curiosity filled the seats at the outset. But even once the novelty wore off, the Aeros have been among the Eastern League leaders in attendance, drawing on fans not just from Akron proper (with a population around 212,000), but the surrounding region as well.
Being an affiliate of the Cleveland Indians certainly has helped in that regard. When Akron first began play in 1997, the parent team was a championship-caliber club built around young stars like Carlos Baerga, Albert Belle, Kenny Lofton and Jim Thome. The Aeros were able to successfully draw from the Tribe's huge fan base at the time to get off on the right foot.
At the same time, Akron has been the beneficiary of Cleveland's talent pipeline. One of the deepest farm systems in all of baseball has continuously fed top-notch talent to its Double-A affiliate, so Aeros fans have been able to watch some pretty good baseball over the years. The 2006 version is trying to repeat as Eastern League champions and, if successful, would bring a third title in four years. Winning isn't always necessary in the Minors to bring fans out, but it sure doesn't hurt.
"The day Jaret Wright threw the first pitch here was the day that complaints [about the stadium] stopped," Williamson said. "This is city government, so people do complain. But in ten years, we haven't heard one person gripe about it."
A good gate isn't what makes this downtown stadium plan a true success. Truth be told, just bringing in over 6,000 per game wouldn't do a whole lot in the big picture for Akron. But as people continued to flock to Canal Park, downtown life experienced a rebirth.
Before the gates opened here, no one ever came downtown. Frankly, there was nothing to come to. Now there are over a dozen restaurants in the area. There's an ampitheater that provides a location for summer concerts and events. The city of Akron even has a First Night program on New Year's Eve.
Businesses -- albeit not the type to bring in 10,000 or more jobs like the rubber corporations did back in the day -- have started coming back as well. The old Goodrich factory has undergone a huge restoration as a polymer research lab, courtesy of Advanced Elastomer Systems. What used to be the corporate headquarters for Goodrich was fixed up and filled by the company that brings us Purell. (In fact, their presence is definitely felt all over the ballpark. As a result, my hands are the most germ-free they've ever been at a stadium).
Downtown Akron now has business, entertainment and foot traffic. And there's clearly room for growth. The positives that have come from this project have led other cities -- Dayton, another huge success story in this regard -- to call Akron and ask for its blueprint. For the first time in a long time, the city and its long-embattled people have reason to be optimistic.
"Do ticket sales pay for the park? No way," Williamson said. "But where would we be without it? This is an amazing transformation.
"It's turned people around. There's an energy here. People feel better about Akron. It's not just a depressed, rusty old city anymore."