What happens when the people leave Dayton?

Dayton made another list- number 5 at losing population. It’s another one of those stupid how-do-you-define-“Dayton” questions that really needs answering soon if we don’t want to keep being made fun of- and continue to lose respect for all that we have:

5. Dayton, Ohio

Population: 153,843

Population Change 2000-2009: -11,961

Population Percent Change 2000-2009: -7.21%

Home Vacancy: 18.9%

For its size, Dayton, Ohio, was once one of the most productive and creative cities in the U.S. It produced more patents per capita at the turn of the century than any other. The city was home to several former great Fortune 500 companies, including National Cash Register, Mead Paper and Phillips Manufacturing. Through the first half of the 20th century, Dayton had one of the healthiest manufacturing industries. It had more GM autoworkers than any city outside of Michigan during World War II. In the past 50 years, Mead has merged with West Virginia Paper and moved to Richmond, and GM has closed one plant after another in the city.

via us-cities-running-out-of-people: Personal Finance News from Yahoo! Finance.

If you look at the Dayton Metro Area- the losses are much smaller- not worth a story- but, since we continue to believe that the health of a core isn’t that important- we keep missing opportunities.

The other day I was reading a trade journal- sponsored by local company NewPage. You know the paper merchant formerly known as Mead. They proudly stated that they were headquartered in Miami Township- or Miamisburg (can’t remember- and I’m not in my office right now). Try finding that on a map?

It’s that kind of lameness that perfectly defines our problem. While we continue to think that because we know the differences between Beavercreek and Trotwood- the rest of the world cares. Never mind that we’ve let sprawl and over-building dilute our community- the reality is, we’ve been talking about how we’re going to fix our problems a lot more than we’ve actually fixed any of them.

With cuts coming in state and federal funding- we’re going to see Dayton proper face even bigger challenges- and the first ring communities suffer even more as more people file out- but- not too far out, because believe it or not- even poor people want safe neighborhoods and good schools.

In the meantime- the current city commission isn’t talking about serious regionalism- or about concentrating what limited resources we have on making sure we get our fundamental services right- they are thinking about spending money demolishing excess inventory- with no plan on how to regrow our community.

Last I checked- we don’t pay taxes to do property maintenance on other people’s buildings- nor do empty homes require government services.

Let’s make use an analogy: Dayton as a restaurant.

At one time- we made a lot of different dishes (manufacturing) and we were very good at it. We had good servers (public services) and a great clientele (population). The population came here because we were a good value: low cost of living, reliable work force, strong business leaders. Translated- the dishes we made were reasonably priced, the servers showed up and the people in the kitchen made sure the dishes came on time.

First problem was when tastes started changing- and we weren’t willing to change the menu. NCR missed the rise of the electronic cash register, GM missed small cars and Frigidaire – well- I’m not sure why we stopped making refrigerators- other than they could probably be made more cheaply elsewhere. Our unions had gotten a bit fat and lazy over the years- and seemed to forget that there were other people on the planet who could do what they did. The days of never changing the menu were over- people wanted different, they wanted just in time, they wanted higher quality at a lower price.

Second problem- when we started telling our customers whom they were going to sit with to eat. The devastating impact of school busing for “integration” was one of the major engines to build the suburbs. The customers who didn’t like sitting with strangers- picked up and left. The restaurant lost 25% of its business almost overnight. What’s worse- it lost most of the customers who bought steak- and tipped well- yet management didn’t change anything for years. Even 30 years later- the realization that this policy was a failure never really hit home. We tried turning the restaurant into a food court- with a little something for everyone- (magnet schools) and never really understood that people still wanted the high end steak dishes- while we were trying to sell them fast food. We still had the same number of seats and employees in the restaurant – although our customers had stopped coming.

Then we tried to go into the manufacturing business ourselves. We’re restaurateurs- we’re supposed to be a service industry- but- we thought we’d try our hand at building offices for new customers- hoping they’d come to our restaurant- the one that can’t make or deliver the meal the customers want. We failed miserably. Building buildings and huge “silver bullet” projects like the Arcade, the Arcade tower, Riverscape, Tool Town etc. weren’t what we were supposed to be doing- but we did, because handing our customers’ money over to our rich builder friends kept getting the management re-elected. Look at the growth of the campaign donations and who paid the tab. These people weren’t eating at our restaurant- they were just talking about it like they still did.

What we needed to do was to learn to refine our menu, keep the best servers, shrink the dining room, concentrate on the finest ingredients we could afford- yet we were still thinking we could run our place like we always had- ignoring the competition.

If we’d concentrated on basic services- good schools, safe neighborhoods, clean streets- and not gone off in a million directions- we’d still have a restaurant. Now, we’re thinking that by destroying tables (taking houses out of the inventory) somehow we’ll be able to bring people back to our restaurant. Again- we’re not concentrating on delivering the best service- or using our limited resources to create a restaurant people want to eat in- we’re just getting rid of tables and chairs.

But, if we’d wake up and look around- we have all the things people could want- we have safe neighborhoods, we have good servers, we have great intimate booths- and stages for performance, and good schools- the works- it’s in a place the world knows as Dayton- but we know as Oakwood, Centerville, Kettering, Beavercreek- etc. If we could only stop drawing lines on a map that slice and dice this into fiefdoms- we’d start looking a lot better.

Why can’t we have a regional school system? Why is it OK to have Sinclair Community College- for the whole of the area- but not a Dayton Public Schools for the whole? Why is it OK to have county commissioners who do almost nothing- and get paid the most of locally elected officials- for full-time work- while the cities have part-timers? Why do we still have townships – in an urban area? Why do we insist on so many elected people- for an area that hasn’t grown all that much in the last 40 years- when we’ve cut back on so many other things that we actually need- like police officers?

We need new management of this restaurant- from top to bottom. We need a new focus on delivering fine food- with the best possible servers- in the restaurant we have- with one management team, one top chef- and hold them accountable. We need to market our place to the world- as one that you want to come to eat, to stick around for a show- and decide this is a great place to hang out.

It’s time for a vision- and leadership of one city, ready to compete on a global scale, with real leaders, paid real money- held accountable by the public to take us where we want to be. The truth is we don’t have a choice. Without rebuilding our customer base- we can’t keep serving the same dreck with new menus forever.

What would we have if we paid our mayor $250K, and, had one sheriff, one fire chief, one inspector gotcha, one prosecutor, one auditor, one chief ethics officer- and all of them made $200K a year? We’d actually have huge cost savings- and a team of people that could be held accountable.

Maybe we’d even have a place people would recognize as a real city- instead of the clusterduck we have now.

Wouldn’t it be nice to be recognized as a leader again? Then maybe, people would actually want to come buy some of those houses cheap and fix them up- and eat at our restaurant again.

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