The “Arcade Problem”

Recently, the taxpayers voted for a library levy that was large, needed and slightly opaque, in that it didn’t clearly define where and what all the money was going for. This opened up the discussion again about turning the Arcade into the Main Library downtown. Pushed hard by my friend J. Todd Anderson and the Dayton City Paper, the idea sounds great except it’s like trying to make an elephant run in the Kentucky Derby.

The arcade isn’t a building, it’s a collection of buildings, all with different uses and requirements. All of the buildings have serious issues with deferred maintenance, vandalism, theft, and general entropy. Even the last attempt to revive the buildings at taxpayer expense back in the eighties didn’t address all of the buildings, all of the floors, or the critical issue- what killed the arcade, and much of downtown from being financially sound- the end of the city steam system at the hands of DP&L.

Heating a huge open space, with a non-insulated glass dome ain’t cheap. Heat rises, and heat costs money. You have to generate enough revenue to not only cover the cost of all the repairs and repurposing – but then you have to maintain climate control, and that is a big bill. On a smaller scale, the stainless steel faced former Homestead Federal building at the corner of Second and Jefferson has a 5 story atrium that acted like a wind tunnel sucking heat from the open first floor up to the skylights like a Dyson on overdrive. Rob Kearns, a friend who moved his graphic design studio up from a strip mall in West Carrollton found out that owning an architect’s wet dream is expensive and in the long run, impractical as his firm floundered and failed downtown- much due to his inability to find tenants for the other floors. Like the arcade, his building didn’t have the other thing tenants want- which is cheap accessible parking, which makes downtown real estate a tough sell.

The arcade is a beautiful building, it’s a part of our history, our heritage, it deserves to stick around. We’ve been horrible at keeping grand buildings of our past in Dayton, and in the long run, the lack of “flavor” forces us to find other ways to entice people to fall in love with our community- and differentiate it from every other Rust Belt city. Gone are 6 of our 7 grand downtown movie theaters- with the only one left, The Victoria, now playing second fiddle to the Schuster and totally negating Memorial Hall- which would already be a green space if it wasn’t legally required by state law to exist.

However, taxpayer investment in the arcade would be another boondoggle. One we can’t afford at this critical point in time at defining the Dayton of the future. We have to look at spending our very limited resources on amenities for all that are also ways to help people lift themselves up, and while libraries are critical centers for self-improvement, with access to books, they’ve become even more critical for computer access for the underclass as ways to find jobs.

Instead of rebuilding the arcade, if we made Internet access accessible for all, in their own neighborhoods, Dayton would clearly distinguish itself from other Rust Belt cities as one on the digital frontier. Putting digital devices into the hands of every DPS student and indirectly into many homes without this technology- we could see a much wider economic shift than another silver bullet project for a single block.

Along with the citywide neighborhood digital access, we’d start to lay gigabit fiber into neighborhoods that pull together to make the shift from low-speed, low-tech cable and DSL to the network that’s needed in the future. If you want to be a part of creating the future- you need the connection speed to do it. It takes 12 hours for my small business to upload an hour of video to YouTube- that’s unacceptable. Dayton has to do better if we want to see tech incubators take off – and I shouldn’t have to rent space in Tech Town to do it.

As to the Arcade, there is a solution, although it would take a change in the State Constitution, a grand scale poker palace. While I’m not a fan of Racinos – a legal way to pretend that horse racing matters still and keep money flowing to an industry that should have gone the way of the buggy whip, poker isn’t the same as slots or other gambling- it’s a game of skill, and where the house only takes a rake, not a guarantee of over 51% of the money.

There are poker games being played all over the State of Ohio that are illegal. And while poker’s popularity has grown, the government has seen it as a threat, shutting down on-line sites because somehow, the IRS thought they weren’t getting enough of the money. The trade-off would be similar to the way bingo is handled in Ohio- the Arcade would be put in the hands of a non-profit trust, which would run the gaming. The proceeds from the gaming would go to maintain and rehab all of the buildings in the complex. The tax valuation of the building would be treated the same way we treat hospitals, which are far from non-profit, but, get a hall pass. The city would gain tax revenue from the employees wages, and from the businesses that would fill the rest of the building- restaurants, hotels, gift shops, etc. The building would live on, the city would have a unique draw that isn’t a full blown casino, seeing as we were shortchanged in the casino bill, and Dayton could move on to more important issues.

 

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