While two dozen community members filed into the pews of Urban Vision Ministries, they were handed small paper bags that contained handouts on local organizations, in addition to a folded piece of paper — the North Hill “asset map.”
The map contains many area businesses, nonprofits and attractions. Color coded dots represent dining spots, event venues, schools, shops and stores, recreational places, social service agencies and faith-based organizations.
“This is a rich, diverse neighborhood,” says Maria Mancinelli of the International Institute of Akron and one of the key individuals who helped to plan the inaugural North Hill Tour.
The North Hill Community Leaders first met last year to discuss community awareness opportunities. But it wasn’t until March of this year, when the International Institute received a grant to engage refugees in the community, that a concept started to take shape of how to introduce community members to all the services and businesses that the northern part of the city has to offer.
“We realized that all of us didn’t know about a lot of places [in North Hill], what was going on down the street,” says Mancinelli. “So we thought, instead of doing a tour for other people, we should start doing some for ourselves.”
Urban Vision, the first stop on this fall’s tour, shared the stories of a couple start-up organizations they have helped kick-start as part of their work within the North Hill community. These entrepreneurial ventures align with the nonprofit Christian organization’s mission of a holistic approach to community development. The group’s programming includes housing assistance, after school and educational programs, teen leadership development and employment focus.
Two local start-ups
The two start-up companies hosted by Urban Vision are within their first year of establishment. Neighbor’s Apparel, which launched in July, works to employ refugee women living in Akron. So far, they’ve worked specifically with Akron’s population of Karen women, an ethnic group from southeast Asia who have escaped from life-threatening circumstances on the Thai-Burmese border.
“The cool thing about it is there are Karen women weaving [the fabric] in Thailand, and we know that they make a living wage doing that,” says co-founder Tessa Reeves. “And then women from Akron who are refugees from Thailand get to make it into a product for our market.”
Reeve’s main distribution channel currently is selling wholesale to local boutiques, such as the Market Path in Highland Square and NOTO in downtown Akron, although their items are available for purchase directly at the shop or online.
Urban Vision’s other start-up project is Aquaponics, an entirely organic and soilless greenhouse powered by fish. Completely self-sustaining and entirely chemical-free, the system originally was designed for educational purposes, but now is moving toward more of a production model.
“We can grow anything in this system, anything,” says Paul Myers, who is leading the initiative for Urban Vision.
The greenhouse instituted a CSA ordering process this past growing season and is looking to expand its offerings in the future.
Authentic cultural grocery stores
The last two stops on the tour were two locally owned grocery stores. The first, Dhimal’s Mini Market market, has been open for a little over a year and is run by a Nepali refugee family who settled in Akron over five years ago. Their products range from ceremonial marriage clothing, to religious items, hair and cosmetic products, gifts and keepsakes. They also carry more traditional grocery items, such as juices and soft drinks, premade traditional snack foods, curries and cooking ingredients and raw meat.
The second, San Miguel’s Latin Market, has come a long way since opening its doors in 2006. Having moved twice to accommodate for expansions, the store has gone from traveling back and forth to Chicago for fresh produce, to ordering online and having products delivered straight to their doors.
“Thanks to God we haven’t [gone] broke,” says co-owner Silvia Pilcher, who runs the store with her family. “I see how other businesses, who started at the same time as us, and they’re gone. It’s a lot of work to keep this.”
Plans for future tours
Mancinelli and the rest of the International Institute, along with the North Hill Community Leaders group, hope to build upon this initial pilot and expand tour offerings in 2015.
“The idea is to continue offering them and get them going for the community, too,” says Mancinelli.
The group is aiming to host the next tour after the first of the year, and is looking to offer them several times per year, either monthly or every other month. However, Mancinelli foresees a more intimate type of setting.
“I think it would be cool to have a little bit smaller group,” she says, “Where you can really sit down and talk and get to know your neighbor.”
If you visit North Hill, be sure to stop by the locations mentioned in this article.
Dhimal’s Mini Market
510 E. Cuyahoga Falls Ave., Akron, OH 44310
San Miguel Mexican Grocery & Mr. Trompo Mexican Food Truck
604 E. Cuyahoga Falls Ave., Akron 44310