Downtown Dayton clearly is not the dominant hub for commerce and entertainment it was during much of the 20th century. The same is true for many downtowns across the country.
But things are changing.
Downtown Dayton is enjoying renewed interest as more businesses open and bring more employees downtown. Meanwhile, more millennials and empty-nesters seeking a different lifestyle, one that offers a mix of life, work and play options within a short walk of a townhouse or apartment, are embracing downtown.
It’s a trend the Downtown Dayton Partnership welcomes as the public-private group strives to make downtown more attractive to business owners, entrepreneurs and would-be residents.
“Our building stock is an advantage because a lot of businesses like the non-traditional spaces we have,” said partnership president Sandy Gudorf. “This walkable environment, this work-live-play type of environment — it’s an opportunity that we’re building on.”
The partnership, founded nearly 25 years ago, has enjoyed some success. By the partnership’s own measure, downtown Dayton now has more than 1,000 employers. More than 90 new start-up companies have located downtown since 2011, with 75 new businesses having set up shop downtown over the past two years. Several major employers such as CareSource also have expanded or moved downtown.
The cumulative investment in Dayton’s central business district will reach $300 million by 2019, the partnership projected in November.
But the partnership and its supporters still have a long way to go. While a few of these businesses are large and established with hundreds of employees, many more are newer and smaller with only a handful of workers.
And there’s a lot of unused space downtown, which Gudorf says is the partnership’s biggest challenge. But there’s been a 10 percent increase in first-floor occupancy since 2010. Given the exodus downtown has experienced, the increase is significant, Gudorf said.
“When you think about all the locally owned restaurants that have opened, the brewpubs, the local retailers — all of that is creating a whole lot of energy,” Gudorf said. “So is the new housing.”
About 600 dwellings are planned for or under construction downtown, which has seen its apartment vacancy rate drop to about 3.5 percent, the lowest in the region, according to the partnership.
But will the demand last? According to recent study by PWC and the Urban Land Institute, time is on the suburbs’ side. Housing industry experts believe many millennials are simply deferring a move to the suburbs until after they get married and start raising families.
No matter how things play out, the partnership will remain downtown’s chief advocate through at least 2020. Last year, a majority of downtown property owners within a special improvement district voted to continue paying an assessment to fund the partnership.
The special improvement district’s boundaries are the Great Miami River on the north, Interstate 75 and the river on the west, U.S. 35 on the south, and East Fifth Street on the east. The district also encompasses Oregon District businesses.
The assessment generates about $1.25 million a year for the partnership, which also receives donations and some private funding. Its total annual budget is about $1.5 million, Gudorf said.
The partnership has eight full-time and three part-time employees. Gudorf has served as its president since 2007.
The partnership is governed by a 42-member board and works closely with city and county officials to make locating downtown easier, Gudorf said. The board is co-chaired by Dayton mayor Nan Whaley and Dr. Michael Ervin, a major downtown proponent.
The partnership has identified several broad tasks it must complete through 2020, when its current funding expires. Those tasks include sustaining and growing residential development, maintaining and enhancing downtown as a clean and safe place to live and work, and coordinating activities and events that boost economic growth downtown.
The programs include Site Seeker, where partnership staff work with businesses, entrepreneurs and property owners to find appropriate space for prospective new businesses.
“We have some 340 property owners (downtown), so for someone to find some space down here, it could be pretty hard if you don’t have that one-stop shop,” said Scott Murphy, the partnership’s director of business development. “And we’ve been in just about every one of these buildings and seen just about every one of these spaces, so we can quickly jump in and help make some matches.”
In 2015, the partnership conducted a record number of searches for companies, Murphy said. Inquiries about locating downtown are running about 30 percent higher than average over past four to five years, he added.
The partnership also has its Pop-Up program, where it helps entrepreneurs find short-term storefront space to test and modify business models before committing to longer-term leases.
Of the 21 pop-up businesses started, 16 were still in business as of mid-December, Gudorf said.
But the partnership’s most visible and popular tool is its Ambassador program, where crews of uniformed workers patrol downtown and pick up trash, remove graffiti, provide directions and otherwise help anyone in need.
“We continue to battle that perception that downtown is not safe,” Gudorf said. “I’m not saying we don’t have crime. Every place has crime. But the amount of crime versus the perception is way out of line.
“We know that in order for you to come downtown, whether it’s to work, locate your business or just to have fun, you have to feel safe.”