The frustration of a Dayton small business owner

Jason Liff is someone I’ve known for a long time. He’s been in real estate as long as I’ve known him, and has done some decent sized deals. He was the one who introduced me to the owner of the Salem Mall- which I tried to save. He also was one of the investors on the Sears deal downtown that netted the investors quite a bit (one of the investors was County Administrator Deborah Feldman’s father-in-law who is her husband’s partner).


Jason also put together the Walgreens deal at Wayne and Wyoming- the one that went in ahead of Rite Aid- even though it got the later start (thanks to historic overlay- the forced move of a worthless house and other delays).

I suggested that Jason open a scooter store over 4 years ago. Last year he did. My firm did his identity and some initial ads. He posted this on the free bus ride editorial on the DDN site- I’m not changing spelling or punctuation.

I voted with my money and opened a scooter store on Wayne Avenue. It took over a year to get through the zoning and permitting process . From experience I can report that, but for a few people, the entire system is riddled with a mentality of no , no, no . -“You cannot do this or that & One cannot change the use of a derelict building on Brown Street . No you cannot put your scooter store in The Oregon “, even though a 5000 sf space exists that no one wants to buy or rent. Why do people avoid Dayton ? Demographics of course. In the main there is a systemic business unfriendly all pervasive atmosphere coupled with a perception of potential violence . We need to encourage small business by discouraging and truncating governments strangle hold on new business ! The city government has rooms full of employees who read chapter and verse from the , THE BOOK OF NO . As an early visitor to the NYC SOHO & Tribeca districts in 1970 ,I can tell you these now model districts did not get started by a pervasive and draconian implementing of every minute policy practice and procedure . Like all such areas in the world they start by a few young , artistic, counterculture oriented people looking for cheaper spaces to work and play with some character. Why don’t we finish up tenanting the Oregon district and loosening the regs that stand in the way ? A few community activist in Oregon that were urban pioneers now block changes to completing 5th Street . How about enforcing the speed limit on Wayne avenue ? How about enforcing anti-littering laws . My sidewalk and lot are littered by 100’s of cigarette butts and candy pop cans . How about an ombudsman process that guarantees answers to all zoning and permitting issues in seven days ? National retail tenants are not coming back so go after the small entrepreneurs, the new Americans that are not afraid of hard work and tough clientele and the arts and crafts communities . The RTA has wasted a lot of money on their edifice complex, even so we do not need free busing of more thugs and scary types. What Dayton does have is cheap rent , cheap buildings ,a vibrant artistic community and historic housing stock that people would cry for in most cities. Artists , and musicians especially can find cheap rent at Front Street —We need more ! Finish something already- Try to fill every building on Wayne and Fifth and Brown and Warren. Oh yes bicycle lanes would be great for scooters mopeds and bicycles and any separation from SUV speeders that crowd others while talking on their phones. Untangle the choke holds of the 3 or 4 structures that throttle all but what they want ! Government is the problem—the entrenched versus the new —Until resolved the buildings will stay boarded up and the retail community will stay away . Call me ! Jason Liff Moto Scooto 1400 Wayne

via Editorial: Free bus rides not the city’s best strategy | A Matter of Opinion.

Jason looked hard and long for a location in the city. Almost everything he found – there was a reason he couldn’t go in. The building he’s in on Wayne Avenue- was on “death row.” There were options from the city to buy it that ended in December- so they could tear it down for a Kroger that wasn’t coming. He had to invest in the building, since the owner wouldn’t- to repair the roof which was leaking. Even his paint job- which some may love and some may hate- is technically in violation of the zoning code. The colors aren’t “historic.” Since the building was condemned the city seemed to look the other way.

The location he really wanted- on 5th Street in the Oregon district- a former pawn shop, between a porn shop and Goodwill- is still sitting empty. It was bigger, had the walking traffic he was interested in reaching- and even has a garage door in back. No deal. Wrong use, too intensive, not enough parking- etc. etc. So it still sits empty.

This isn’t the only business person I’ve heard horror stories from, and it’s not hard to hear them. Another businessman who has successfully rehabbed many downtown buildings over the last 20 years and knows his way around city hall at first ran into a roadblock trying to get a demolition permit on a nasty concrete block garage next to his new project. Apparently it had a $7,000 water bill still attached to it. How anyone can buy a building and NOT find out about a water bill for more than the property sold for is another big FAIL at business friendly.

We also have a bed and breakfast fighting for a permit to sell wine in the Oregon District. It took the 5th Street Wine and Deli almost a year to get their permit. This isn’t new, Pacchia and What You Eat both had to fight to get their permits, too. Some “entertainment” district.

I still believe in Dayton– even though I just had my office broken into. But, I remember back to the hassles I went through over 20 years ago to reclaim a derelict building, including a nine-month delay in an occupancy permit and the realization that my zoning is still considered a “conditional use” even though the building was built as a commercial retail structure. To add insult to injury, the building inspector required that my front door (which has a huge window in it) had to have a single key deadbolt with a thumb key- which gave the thieves the ability to break in and get out easier.

Yep, the city of Dayton needs a new attitude, and quick. Mr. Liff spells it out pretty clearly. The question is can an old dog learn new tricks? Mayor Leitzell is only one vote.

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29 Comments on "The frustration of a Dayton small business owner"

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Nate Mendenhall

I agree that an ombudsman for the zoning process would help greatly.  My family purchased and renovated the former Nite Owl and while the actual building and fire inspectors were reasonable and helpful throughout our remodel when we had to deal with zoning to put in a patio it was 6 months of no, no, NO! and a lack of communication that would have gotten an employee of any private business reprimanded or fired.  The city should be encouraging the brave souls who want to start business in the empty spaces in Dayton instead of making them jump hoops and delaying projects that will add jobs and make Dayton more inviting.  Maybe the Chamber of Commerce or another business entity could appoint an ombudsman if the city is unwilling to change it’s tune and be more helpful.


Is the “gorgeous, three-story Ballsey Building” the one with bricks falling from its unmaintained exterior and the remnants of prohibition-era speakeasy interior?  I cannot imagine why anyone would want that white elephant.

Civil Servants Are People, Too
Civil Servants Are People, Too
I notice there is little mention of the government’s perspective.    While there may very well be room for improvement, this is a very one-sided point of view.   For example… It appears that staff are being blamed for following the law, even while you rail against the County for their failure in oversight elsewhere on this blog.   Should the City selectively choose what laws to enforce?  Why not blame the people who wrote the laws instead?  Staff in every city must follow State and local law, period. Perhaps there is a valid reason why the City would not want to set a precedent with a cycle shop in the Oregon District.   Does that not open the door to used car lots, auto repair, or other businesses that would kill the unique character of the city’s best-known neighborhood?   Even if this business would fit right in, the code must be applied fairly to the next one, too. Similarly, perhaps allowing a bed & breakfast to have the same kind of liquor permit as an all -night carry-out, in the middle of the neighborhood, is not the best idea for the long term.  What would stop someone from opening a liquor store if the B&B goes out of business?   How does the neighborhood feel about it?   Did the City get pressure from them one way or the other? If there was an unpaid water bill, why is the former building owner not held responsible?   How about the Realtor or attorney who brokered the deal?   Why should the City be responsible for their failure in due  diligence?   Why not the County, who transfers the property?  Did anyone even check on it at all? If staff is truly unfriendly or uncooperative, that is another story.   Something should be done about that, without question. Perhaps there is a reason.  Are they understaffed?    Do they have access to the technology that they need?   Are they not understanding the laws?  Is there a better person for the job? However, there is a difference between uncooperative and just not getting the answer you want to hear.   Ask them in… Read more »
Civil Servants Are People, Too
Civil Servants Are People, Too

PS.   Sorry, I haven’t mastered the line break spacing here yet.   That’s a little hard to read.


1. Blind Bob’s has the best Reuben sandwich in the world. That’s all I’ve ever had, but I have it on good word that everything else is equally delicious.

2. I own 3 residential properties and the first thing I did before making an offer on any of them was to contact the city (not Dayton) and check on water bills, permits, and outstanding assessments. While it’s true some may get those issues forgiven after the fact, there is no excuse to not do your due diligence, especially on a commercial investment.


It seems the more I study about Dayton, the greater the historicity of, and present indications to power-hungry bureaucrats, greedy council-members, and bigoted law enforcement I discover. Where did this city go wrong? What event turned our beloved hometown from one of the greatest Middle-American communities to the town we know today, looking like Detroit’s little sister?
I’m young and one of the few in my generation who deeply love and care about Dayton, Ohio, my home. Being a part of this most recent generation – one that never has been fortunate enough to experience Dayton’s best – I must ask: What did the generation before mine (and the generation before that one) do to screw up such a wonderful town so horrifically? Who put all the laws in those books that makes an entrepreneur feel like our region’s greatest enemy? Who hires the civil employees that treat constituents like trash? And who the hell elected 50 years of worthless politicians that only give a damn about their wallets and upper hand over people too stupid to know they were/are being had?
This all sounds like embittered rhetoric, but before anything changes, the virile scum that put this town in the shitter really needs to take some responsibility. I’m all for cleaning up the mess of the prior generation, but a little ownership from those who CREATED the problems would certainly expedite Dayton back into a place with more good things than bad things to talk about, no?

Jay Madewell
Jay Madewell

Dear “Civil Servants Are People, Too”- people with your attitude are our biggest hurdle, DON’T YOU LIVE HERE?! Let’s fire these naysayers that stand in the way of ANYTHING ever changing.



Perhaps there is a valid reason why the City would not want to set a precedent with a cycle shop in the Oregon District.

Those damn cycle shop owners!  I mean just look at the Wrights, they ran off to Kitty Hawk to do their flying…

Ask people that have money to spend what they want to do and help them.

Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner!

we need the right to break up any groups of 3 or more

Woah, slow down there cowboy…



You are obviously knowledgeable.

However, your attitude of not being a part of the problem is EXACTLY the problem.

There is a massive, systemic problem with business development practices in our City.  And it has everything to do with attitude.

Passing the buck to other levels of goverment, other agencies, other people, GETS US NOWHERE.

Until people like yourself can take a step back from it all and realize that the City needs a FUNDAMENTAL CHANGE in attitude, we’ll all ride this sinking ship down together.

Instead of “no, this violates Code 123 of Section 456”, try some “well, let’s try this variation instead” or “this site may not work, but how about this one,” or heaven forbid even “that’s damn close enough for us, and thanks for choosing to locate here in Dayton.”

Stop passing the buck and FIX IT.  PERIOD.

And don’t say you can’t.  Yes, you can.  Do it.  Go now.  Yes, right now.  Tommorrow is Monday.  Be the solution.  Time is wasting………..

I live and work in this town too.  We’re all in this together.

Drexel Dave Sparks
Drexel Dave Sparks

I have had the chance to start a business in Dayton, but said nah baby nah after seeing what so many others go through. Daytonians do not take chances because they see what happens to those who do – they are persecuted.

David – you know my story… I grew up, lived and worked in the Miami Valley for years, making lots of business & government contacts in that time before deciding to return out to the West Coast (a decision fueled, in part, over disappointments working in theatre here). Within a year of moving to Los Angeles, I had not only made tons of connections in city governments and the entertainment industry, I had opened my OWN theater in Hollywood, and began creating not only success for myself, but excitement in others about what I was doing. As both my business & family grew – and we began gaining national attention, which involved more extensive traveling – we thought it made sense to get a residence close to family and contacts we already have here in the Miami Valley. Nearly two years ago I moved my children here with the hope of providing them the benefits of the hometown atmosphere I had experienced. Originally, we were excited by the part of our plan to establish a presence here in Dayton, including planning to open our own theatre/entertainment attraction. Within a few weeks I had met with my contacts, and began meeting a variety of new people (including yourself), then started trying to find a location. One dead end after another. Either the rents were ridiculous, or they expected me to make so many repairs to the horribly rundown buildings that there was no way I could EVER expect to break even (that includes, by the way, that former pawn shop in the Oregon District — whose owner might be certifiably insane based upon his stated expectations to at me). Some of these people in downtown Dayton want more per square foot than they ask for on Hollywood’s Theatre Row – while the chances are slim of even making a quarter the money I could make there. I ask you, does that make sense?! Meeting with downtown Dayton planning and other organizations connected with the city were also dead ends. It all boiled down to the fact that there was nothing they… Read more »
Shortwest Rick
Shortwest Rick
        What did the generation before mine (and the generation before that one) do to screw up such a wonderful town so horrifically?   Jordan, in my opinion, a series of seemingly unrelated events that after the fact built on one another brought Dayton to it’s current state:   1971 – Forced Busing – People with long held racial attitudes and ability to do so began moving to the suburbs in bigger numbers still stinging from the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Kettering and Huber Heights populated, Trotwood and Jefferson Township to a lesser degree. Note, Wilmington Pike turned into a two lane dirt road at Dorothy Lane until sometime in the mid 1960’s. Purchasing, operating and co-coordinating school buses became a fixed expense for DPS, as property tax revenue moved to the suburbs actual dollars available for education declined exponentially. 1984 – NUMMI – General Motors and Toyota established a joint venture factory in Freemont, Ca. General Motors learned and implemented in Freemont how the Japanese were building a better automobile but failed to take it system wide for another 25 years, consequently continuing to spew inferior products out of other plants. Dayton’s economy by that time was almost totally dependant on automotive manufacturing jobs assumed to last into eternity. 1987 – Residency Rule – Dayton adopted into ordinance a protectionism mind set, of course people were not moving into Dayton in droves so it limited itself to basically a hiring pool of people who had been turned out of it’s own unfunded schools for the past fifteen years. 1988 – Ronald Regan’s War on Drugs – Police and prison resources became increasingly dedicated to detecting, pursuing and incarcerating anyone with a joint creating a second economy which today remains tax exempt but costs us billions annually. 1992 – NAFTA, George H. W. Bush’s last act of his Presidency – Americans somehow still don’t understand almost twenty years in that purchasing products manufactured by people at a lower wage not only eliminates the manufacturing jobs out of their own community but lowers their standard of living to a level comparable to those whom they are buying the products from.… Read more »
Civil Servants Are People, Too
Civil Servants Are People, Too

“Even his paint job- which some may love and some may hate- is technically in violation of the zoning code.”

“There are laws to regulate the actions of people- and their are laws about property- if we worried more about the people instead of the property we’d be better off.”
“…when we had to deal with zoning to put in a patio it was 6 months of no, no, NO”‘

“Instead of “no, this violates Code 123 of Section 456?, try some “well, let’s try this variation instead” or “this site may not work, but how about this one,” or heaven forbid even “that’s damn close enough for us, and thanks for choosing to locate here in Dayton.”

@ All of the above….
It sounds like the theme here is with the zoning code.   I assume there is a process  in Dayton to get variances on the code.    So who is saying “No” to those applications?   Planner, Permit-er, Zoning Board?   Let’s get to the bottom of it.
If that’s the problem, where are the political candidates running on the “no more zoning” platform in Dayton?   Who will stand up for the junkyards, halfway houses, and porn shops that will follow?  Who will volunteer to live next to those places?
My main point goes unanswered – how can people expect civil servants to enforce the law while simultaneously asking them to break it?
I am 100% in favor of good customer service, and government should absolutely help businesses be successful.   The answer should ALWAYS be, “I will try to help you with that,” but that does NOT mean saying YES if something violates the law.
Please, at least be clear about who you are really angry with – the worker bee or the queen of the hive.  Do not ask us to break the law for you, but rather how to follow it, or who has the power to change it.

Nate Mendenhall

It’s the zoning board that failed to notify us of their inital denial of our patio and who had us have our drawings redone, by an architect at considerable cost, and wanted us to do them again when they added more requirements after our first redraw.  These civil ‘servents’ (I feel civil obstuctionists would be more accurate) aren’t just enforcing laws, they’re selectively picking what to enforce and they fail to offer any helpful suggestions on changes that could be made to get approval.  Heck, they didn’t even bother to tell us when they denied our plan so we could take it to appeal.  It took repeated calls and being transferred from helpless person to helpless person to learn we had been denied.

To answer and earlier question of “What would stop someone from opening a liquor store if the B&B goes out of business?”  the city can move to block a transfer of a liquor license so they could stand in the way of a liquor store if the B&B left.  Everyone I’ve talked to in the OD supports the B&B’s plan to serve beer and wine and yet the city raises ridiculous objections such as “couldn’t lodging and liquor lead to a brothel?” 

Is the zoning board elected?  Could we run some canidates with common sense to sit on it?  If it’s possible I’m in to help any canidate with some sense and a business friendly attitude take a run at it. 


Eliminate zoning and the use of government force.
They are killing us.



Who will stand up for the junkyards, halfway houses, and porn shops that will follow?

Where do you live?  They’re already here.

Gene . . .

Best post in a long time, along with great comment. I love the football throw idea, DE.

Dayton needs to be business friendly and they are not. Not at all. In fact Ohio in general is not. Just look at the slow banks project in Cincinnati, and how KY said screw the red tape, you want to build a business or restaurant over here? SOLD….
Government workers don’t get it. They don’t take risks is right on the money. They don’t know the first thing about risk. They collect pay checks and most are impossible to deal with. A few things forward… just do it. Open up. Don’t consult the city. DE brought up the B&B in the OD… I suggest the get an idea of what they want (ie beer and wine) go to Indiana and buy it and sell it to whom ever stays there behind closed doors. No one will know (oops, now they will.) Just by pass the city if you can. And rental space is un-frickin-real for what they want. They act like people are dieing to get in these buildings. Most have been vacant for years.

We need less government and less laws. Dayton needs to be business friendly. But everyone wants a piece of the action.

Jeff of Louisville
Jeff of Louisville

Some interesting stuff here.  Ground truth.
Here’s something they have in Louisville that could solve or mitigate the  government bureaucracy problems here in the Dayton area.  It’s called the buisness ombudsman:
I think we had a neighbor who worked for an earlier version of this office (when it was a direct report to either the county judge or mayor), and she said it was about cutting through red tape to make things happen for businessess wanting to expand or locate in town.  This was back in the early 80s when there was a lot of “structural adjustment” going on in the Louisville economy, so being “business friendly” was a high priority.

Jeff of Louisville
Jeff of Louisville

Is the zoning board elected?  Could we run some canidates with common sense to sit on it?
BZAs are usually appointed.  So this is something Gary Lietzell might have some influence over.

Emily Weaver
Emily Weaver
I thought that many would like to hear a status update of my Inspector Gotcha journey –  (certainly after Jason and Nate’s experience) – also keep in mind that when you read this 70% of our parking lot was already APPROVED to be a parking lot – we tore a building down and BZA claims that that event changed ALL the Zoning . To write the following is as bizarre as it has been to experience: 1)       The City of Dayton GOTCHA staff admitted that BIG, BIG EMPLOYER (BBE) wants to close the street parallel to our parking lot.  They admitted as much during early meeting with my family and the City.  It became obvious during those early meetings that BBE hammered the City to do “something” to diminish our position while enhancing theirs.  Doesn’t sound real balanced to me.  Demo dust?  Are you kidding?  BBE has demolished just about EVERYTHING around them.    2)      I caught a BIG, BIG EMPLOYER’s private police in our lot.  He was trespassing.  I informed him of the situation – the conversation with the pseudo-wanna-be cop went like this:   ME:  You are trespassing. HIM:  You got a problem with me? ME: What part of trespassing don’t you understand? HIM:  I’m looking for someone. ME: Not in here.  Get out.  I know all you are doing is harassing the staff on private property about their cigarette smoking. HIM:  Give me your license. ME:  F^&k off.  Get out.  I don’t have a license for you a$$hole.  (At this point I think that the nurses smoking in the lot thought I was going to need CPR – they might have been right)!  HIM:  Are you upset about something? – as he writes down MY vehicle license plate number. ME:  I own this lot.  Do not note my license plate.  You are the one trespassing! You think that you can intimidate me?    Totally, utterly surreal.   A call was made to his boss, who weirdly (???), seemed to be aware of the situation.  A memo went out not only to the “private” BBE’s Gestapo but… Read more »
Robert Vigh
Robert Vigh

Every rule and regulation makes it more difficult for small businesses to enter the market. Zoning takes authority over all private property and denies us the right to utilize our property as we see fit. I think it is a very strange concept in general.

Bruce Kettelle

Zoning rules serve many purposes and generally contain enough vaguity to allow room for interpretation by administrators and applicants.  Disputes between those entities get settled by citizen zoning boards or sometimes the courts.  I feel for all sides in these discussions.

Everybody can’t always be right and I have agreed and disagreed with plenty of zoning decisions over the years both here and in other states I’ve lived in.  For those of you involved in disputes it can often be useful to turn to the city’s land use plan.  This document is used as the underlying framework for the zoning code.  The land use plan can be an excellent tool to argue the validity of the intent of the zoning code.  I’ve not reviewed Dayton’s land use plan but suspect it is interesting reading.

For example I enjoyed the reference to the football rule.  I bet the application of that rule alone could create multiple interpretations.  Is the distance equal to how far the landowner can throw the ball, or the zoning administrator or the world recordholder (160ish feet), or is it the distance the ball could be thrown by a home made catapult?

Beth Fitzgerald

Hi David,
Ran across your blog today looking for architectural salvage companies in Dayton. Anyway as a longtime business owner in the Oregon District, (Blue Moon and Tolliver’s in it’s first several years) and a participant prior to that, I know from experience that fighting the city has always been a no win situation. Many people do not realize how long the Oregon District has been trying to get off the ground, but it is somewhere over thirty years. With so many experienced and motivated people who have tried and failed, one must start to wonder why.
Everything is a huge battle and little to no help is received from the city. The Oregon is one of the top destination spots in Dayton yet it is has proved impossible to get any collective government support for the area. No one wants to stand up to complaining residents, or take a risk and change the parking requirements. If the business area was supported, it would thrive and yes some residents would be pissed. Let them move and new residents would move in that support a thriving active 5th Street. Dayton would be so much better off if we could finally get this project off the ground.
Officials that say they are just following the laws and rules to need to quit passing the buck and start passing new agendas that are in support of this area. Stand up instead of standing by and make this area a success.

Jeff Dziwulski
Jeff Dziwulski

I think the residential part is a sucess.  And a suprising one, since it kicked off in-earnest in the 1970s, which was hard times for Dayton.  

The commercial part, the 5th Street part, never seemed to reach critical mass and become the intense “hot” area like Short North or the Clifton area in Cincinnati, or Bardstown Road in Louisville, or even Elmwood Avenue in Buffalo,  where nearly every storefront is leased and there is a good mix of nightlife, restaurants, and speciality retail.   

It could be the city government.  It could be residents’ opposition.  Or it could simply be that Dayton is a weak market city that can’t support the kind of traffic that would support the “finishing” of 5th Street.   Probably a mix of things, but the reality is that we already have a something like the places I mentioned, except it’s called “Yellow Springs”.    

Yellow Springs offers good competition to the Oregon and might be why the Oregon never developed much beyond what is already there.

It’s worth the trip to go to Yellow Springs for an hour or two on a weekend afternoon, for things other than entertainment (though it has that, too, with the Little Art and Peaches), things like galleries, craft places, coffee shops, etc.    Oregon doesn’thave enough to make it worth the trip.

So there is a virtuous cycle operating in Yellow Springs, as things draw people, and the traffic makes even more retail viable.   The opposite is happening in the Oregon, where there is less and less reason to go there.   Places that used to make the place a bit more interesting than usual, like Gem City and the old Paccia Coffee Shop, have closed.   In short Oregon gets lamer while Yellow Springs becomes more interesting…  

But, then again, this is a weak market city, so there probably isn’t enough disposable income or people willing to patronize places, to support both an Oregon or Yellow Springs.