January Summit Lake meeting offers chance for community to share desires for neighborhood

By: Bob Downing

There is only one bench outside Akron's Summit Lake Community Center. Strangely, the bench does not face the pretty 100-acre lake. It faces away from the water.

That needs to change if Summit Lake is to become a place of community pride and an urban playground, said several neighbors attending the Jan. 19 potluck dinner/public meeting on Akron Civic Commons.

More than 50 people attended the meeting that was billed as a community conversation about how local assets like Summit Lake can be revitalized and better connected to people.

The effort, which involves three areas of Akron along a three-mile section of the Ohio & Erie Canal Towpath Trail between downtown Akron and Summit Lake, is being funded by a $5 million grant as part of Reimagining the Civic Commons. The national project is funded by The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation. The project has numerous partners in Akron including the city of Akron.

The goal is to build awareness about community spaces along the Towpath Trail.

The latest meeting was designed “to keep you informed and keep you in the loop,” Mike Starks of the Summit Lake Neighborhood Association told neighbors. The initiative will “affect the neighborhood and the way you live,” he added.

Added Eric Nelson of Students With a Goal (SWAG): “We're eager to hear what you want to say.”

The new program, he said, is trying to bring accountability to Summit Lake. There has been frustration in the past but what is happening now is different, he said.

He urged the audience to “keep us accountable.”

Dan Rice of the Ohio & Erie Canalway Coalition told the audience: “We don't have all the answers. We're starting with you. We're not consultants....The question is how can we work together to make Summit Lake better.”

He called the meeting “a deep dive” to get more public input.

The real question facing the community effort is “How might we?” he stressed.

Suggestions will be finalized at a public meeting at 6 p.m. Feb. 16 at the Summit Lake Community Center, and that will help shape activities over the next 6 to 12 months, he said.

Suggestions must be desirable, feasible and sustainable and meet the needs of the community, he said.

Many in the community say they do not see Summit Lake as an asset, but organizers are “working to make it a great place where we can all come together,” Rice said.

For example, Summit Metro Parks, a project partner, is interested in offering nature/environmental programs at Summit Lake, he said.

People may become uncomfortable with certain plans and there will likely be projects that fail, he said.

Neighbors said they were anxious to celebrate Summit Lake's beauty and nature.

A canoe ride on Summit Lake last summer was “super fun,” said Julie Wandling Costell of Miss Julie's Kitchen. There was no signs of alligators, she said with a laugh.

Rice suggested that free canoeing on Summit Lake might be offered Saturdays in 2017 once the weather gets warmer. That would get people on the lake and provide a new recreational activity, he said.

He told the audience that the foundations funding the program were impressed by the Akron community's “passion and willingness to make a commitment.”

There were suggestions to add canoes, kayaks and sailboats; to provide an ice cream stand and picnic facilities; to stage outdoor music festivals and gospel choir concerts; to build a fishing pier, to provide bicycles; and to sponsor a community parade.

There were calls for more lighting along the Towpath Trail, to plant fruit trees, to stage a big block party, to build an outdoor amphitheater, to offer bird walks and bird identification classes and to offer canal boat tours.

Volleyball and bocce ball courts might be built. There were calls for cooking classes and story hours for children. Some want ice skating and kite flying. There was a call for a water taxi.

People in the neighborhood said they want more than just basketball courts.

Others wanted blighted homes fixed up or removed. Some wanted to see a front porch culture grow in the neighborhood. Transportation improvements are desperately needed by neighbors.

The attendees broke into three small groups for informal discussions and suggestions were written on multi-colored notes and affixed to boards for viewing.

Many of the suggestions are similar to what Summit Lake neighbors had proposed at earlier meetings on the project. Many of the suggestions were also modest and needed, not flashy or glitzy.

Jan Williams, who lives on the west side of Summit Lake, was thrilled that organizers wanted suggestions from the public.

She proposed history walks of the neighborhood.

Neighbor Jim Cook, 59, a first-time attendee, said he was impressed by what he saw.

He called the meeting “a good launching pad” to further develop the plan.

Summit Lake is an asset, a beautiful lake, he said. It can be better utilized but not by disrespecting the neighborhood, he said. “It's that balance that we need to bring,” he said.