The boys in the back room are bickering (now exposed)

When I started out in politics in Dayton, I often said that Dayton was run by a boys’ club, who decided who would run for office, what would get funded etc. Tom Danis was one of the ringleaders, others ran Mead, NCR, Standard Register- they met at the Dayton Bicycle Club- conveniently next door to City Hall. They even had a full time lobbyist. They went by different names over the times- but when I started it was the Dayton Business Committee. Before that, it was the “All Dayton Committee” or some such.

Now, almost all the business has left town. The big boys aren’t around- and we still have some people who think that they can “operate” from behind the curtain. Political party bosses, labor leaders, a few “developers” and maybe a banker or two.

It’s not working any better than it did then- bad decisions are still being made- but, now, thanks to the magic of the Internet you can see the arguments via passed-along e-mails.

It started with Mayor Leitzell’s former buddy, “developer” and saver of Cities- David McDonald- chair of the Mayor’s “Leadership Council” sending an e-mail that I don’t have out to a distribution list. If you have a copy- please forward it.

[UPDATED SECTION] after reading McDonald’s note- I’m surprised that it generated the back and forth it did- He’s pretty much on the money.

Subject: Reuse Study for 8 Downtown Buildiongs / Open Letter
Good Afternoon:

I read with great dismay that you have approved yet another study to be conducted in the City of Dayton. The front page of the Dayton Daily News today talks about the greatly reduced number of fire and police officers. Please consider cancelling this study and spend the $94,000 on police and fire employees or on economic development that makes sense. Closets at the city are full of studies that have accumulated for years, and never been acted on. They were virtually all performed with good intentions or so elected officials could “appear” to be doing something. Nothing of significance has ever been accomplished from decades of studies. This one will be no exception.

Let me tell you in advance what the study will suggest: The citizens want retail, restaurants, entertainment and most of all a grocery store. With 39 years of “hands on” experience, let me tell you that retailers, restaurants, grocery stores, and most entertainment venues do not pioneer. That means that it is not a “chicken or the egg” event. These businesses only move in when the trend is for residents to be moving in – and already be living there in sufficient numbers to justify their businesses. That is not currently happening in Dayton. The city has tried before to “buy” restaurants, and it has never worked. Office building uses won’t work – not when our office building vacancy rate is worse than Detroit’s for three years running. (Source: Integra Realty Resources IRR – Viewpoint 2011, Page 11). That leaves residential, and for Dayton that is an exceptionally bright spot. Well, if the only bright spot is residential, and we now have sites on the river that could be made to work, why would you not just focus on those and save your money? For once, instead of conducting surveys and studies, actually do something! Supposedly the outcome of this study is to determine what can be done with these buildings. The important point here is not what a building could be used for, but who is going to do it? I mean what developer are you going to force to rebuild old buildings that have no views of anything except pavement and bricks & mortar? Let me cover the term “mixed use”. It is such a “hot” term now. Everyone is using it. Do you know what it means? Office, retail, restaurants, grocery stores, entertainment and residential. Thats it! No more categories. These categories are all ruled out except for residential, so lets stop using that term and move right into residential development. For that, you need direct contact with developers to see what they think will work – not consultants to tell you what would be “ideal”. Either residential will work in one of these buildings or nothing will – at least for now. Of course you could add some office – maybe, but you would be cannabilizing other buildings in the core. Do you want to do that? By the way, the Dayton Region Developers Committee is already ahead of you on this one and the city is helping.

Several years back, the Downtown Dayton Partnership asked 10 architects to come up with plans for ten older buildings. Earl Reeder showed a rendering of a redeveloped Price Stores Building that was outstanding! It was about the best I have ever seen. Know what follow-up there was by developers on this or any of the other buildings? None. Now you want to do the Price Stores Building all over again? If you don’t focus on a few large, trophy residential projects downtown, and begin demolishing some of the older, eyesore buildings – and soon, our city’s core is gone. More people than I care to think about think Thompson Hine’s departure was likely the “straw that broke the camel’s back” for the city. If it was not, we are very close. I do not want to see that happen! Do you five commissioners want to be labeled as one of the leaders who oversaw the total ruin of one of our nation’s largest cities? You are heading there fast, and you are using the same old ideas and practices that have gotten our city into its current mess.

David McDonald

I don’t see the personal attacks that I was told were involved-  in fact, either Riordan has a really thin skin or there is something funky about this whole deal- because- the back and forth that I had reported earlier- was more heated than this note should have generated. If the above isn’t the e-mail that was sent to Riordan- let me know.

[END UPDATED SECTION]

Unbelievably- Tim Riordan decided to reply to Mr. McDonald, and it’s almost as sad:

He sent it out to a bunch of people:

Date:    6/3/2011 1:24 PM
Subject:    A Short Note
To All,
This note is in response to one that David McDonald sent out to a large “undisclosed list” criticizing a City development action.  I hate to bother you with this, but his note included so much fantasy that I just didn’t want to leave it out there without a proper response.
Unfortunately, since David didn’t copy us in and we don’t have his list,
I am copying a bunch of people, and I include you in our response.
Thanks.  Tim Riordan

David,

There you go again: SHOOT, READY, NO AIM!

As I read your note, I smiled and was reminded of growing up in Wisconsin and how in deer-hunting season we painted cows with a sign that said ‘not a deer.’ While you wrote a great note about what I can only assume is a fictional contract, unfortunately, it had nothing to do with the contract the City approved. You shot the cow.

  1. The primary purpose of the contract (an adaptive reuse study) is to identify opportunities to reposition some of our obsolete downtown office buildings in the Main Street Corridor and repurpose them primarily with housing units. Given the more than 90% occupancy rates with our downtown housing, we are interested in more housing product to build on the existing successes. None of this is easy.
  2. Earlier, similar efforts helped to reposition older, obsolete buildings such as Second Street Market, Cooper Lofts, the Cannery, Ice Avenue Lofts, the Hawthorne School in McPherson Town, the Firefly Building, and the St. Clair Lofts, just to name a few. These all turned out pretty good and leveraged about $100 million in investment.
  3. The RFP for this contract was issued November 2010, long before Thompson-Hine made their departure announcement.
  4. The project team encompasses architectural, engineering, environmental and developer expertise. The scope of work includes technical analyses of current building conditions – typical pre-development activities. It is a little unusual for us to do this, but given such a soft market, I felt it is worth it.
  5. Nowhere in the scope will you find the words market study or citizen survey. Did you even read the contract? Really? I know you didn’t talk to anybody in City Hall.

From my perspective we are trying to build on an area of success in downtown – housing and its more than 90% occupancy rate. None of these sites will be easy to complete because financing is still so difficult, but providing more information to potential developers better defines the risks they need to overcome in the development process when financing is more readily available.

And finally David, I do challenge you to put your money where your mouth is and actually do a development in Dayton to show us how it is done. I would love to celebrate a grand opening with you and have you say to us –“  I told you so.”

Your Friend,

Tim Riordan
City Manager

Mr. McDonald replied with venom, pretty quickly:

Date: 6/3/2011 4:15 PM

Subject: Re: A Short Note

Tim, you remind me of a would be “old sage” who never really learned what was important in the world, and continued year after year to preach the same tired and failed initiatives as if they were gospel. I am not particularly into cows – especially shooting them, but it was a cute story. Here is my story: We have a city, that you preside over, that has an office building vacancy rate that is worse than Detroit, for three years running – and getting worse. We have city employees (that work for you) that are actually running some businesses out of town – directly or indirectly and/or not effectively helping them to stay (Tissue Center, Levin Foundation, New Page, Woolpert, Frankos, O’Neill & Assoc., Thompson Hine, Gibson Law Offices, etc.). We have an “average capitalization rate” for the city that is worse than Detroit’s for three years running, and to clarify, that makes new development very, very hard. We are short on police, fire and general services. We are continually written up by Forbes Magazine, and it is not good. What are you doing that is truly turning this around? You are doing nothing except more studies, and managing the downturn, and you do that well. However, you have not a clue how to create an upturn. I fully realized that in a Mayor’s Leadership Council meeting months ago when you had a hard time grasping the concept of and need for free parking. It is also interesting that you were in city management in Cincinnati when 3CDC was formed by local CEO’s because local government was not doing anything to prevent a significant downturn. I think you are a very good man. I mean that, but you are totally wrong for the job of running Dayton. Running Dayton is big business, and we need someone with very significant business experience – and with new ideas. The old ideas have all failed. All of them.

You would tend to try and distract us from the real issue here by trying to say you are not doing another useless study. You are in fact spending $94,000 for another study that will get lost in the works. You feebly try to take credit for some of the residential development downtown. OK, I will blindly give you a little credit, but you have failed on everything else, and you were not the developer on any residential projects, were you?. You would be amazed at the number of people in this region who passionately agree with me. Why would anyone on this earth agree with you – other that your employees, when they look at the deteriorating condition of this city? And it continually gets worse! Your term “project team” sounds just great, but again, what developers are you going to force to redevelop old buildings with no view?

Maybe I will and maybe I won’t be responsible for any development happening downtown, but I am trying new and innovative approaches, and I have drawn the attention of a number of very significant people who actually have the ability to make things happen. You on the other hand apparently would try to diminish the value of anyone who comes in to take a strong position on fixing things. As it stands now, you and the commissioners may go down in history as overseeing the dismantling on one of the largest cities in the US. I have looked at Dayton’s business exodus over the past 10 years. It is a little different every year, but given the 10 year average, the office building vacancy rate in Dayton will be at or about 50% in 4 to 5 years. That will certainly do us in. Take your “old sage” mentality and your cows and go destroy another city!

You are a disappointment Tim. Do us all a favor and retire.

David McDonald

I agree that spending money to do studies is a waste. The problems of adaptive reuse, and the challenges in making projects fly in Dayton is the biggest obstacle out there. If you need to know how difficult it is to make things happen, talk to some people who tried to do the conversions. I’m friends with Bill Rain- who did the Lofts on St. Clair, the Ice Lofts, and was a founding partner on the Cannery. I remember the levels of angst he endured to try to take the pigs’ ears and turn them into silk purses. Dayton doesn’t make it easy.

But, remember- the City Manager works for the Mayor and the Commissioners, who are supposed to set strategy and provide oversight. Unfortunately, none of them ever really challenge the Managers programs, or hold him or his staff accountable. The Kroger deal should have seen someone get fired. Instead- they are still in charge.

Just bringing residents back downtown isn’t enough to transform our city. We need things for these urban bohemians to do- places to hang out, eat, shop, drink. We need to bring energy and vibrancy back downtown. However, none of this is going to be possible while there is still a fire sale going on with major buildings being sold at fractions of a penny on the dollar. We need some real strategy- and we need leadership that isn’t telling stories about painting on cows.

If both Riordan and McDonald want to see how it’s done- they need to look at Cory Booker in Newark NJ- leadership, hammering away at solving basic service issues. You don’t get to be a 3-star restaurant by doing studies on food- you do it by delivering amazing service, value and taste.

This tasteless exchange shows the pettiness of those who run our town and those who think they should run our town. Unfortunately, neither have what it takes, IMHO.

What do you think of this exchange? The mayor is already distancing himself from McDonald. But that’s the least of his problems. First and only thing we should be trying to solve is how to hire police and fire back up to strength, everything else is a distraction.

 

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