With Dayton voters just nine days away from choosing a new mayor, local business and economic development experts say the city’s top leader should play a major role in the economic health of the core city and the region as a whole.
Both Dayton mayoral candidates — current City Commissioner Nan Whaley and former County Auditor and Judge A.J. Wagner — have said the future success of Dayton hinges on the city’s ability to attract more jobs. Each has published a plan to accomplish that.
“I think the mayor does play a significant role in the business attractiveness of a city,” said Chris Kershner, vice president for public policy for the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce. “They can be a champion for businesses … through passage of business-friendly ordinances, and making sure the permitting process is streamlined and affordable for new businesses. But they can also be a champion through a public relations role. They have that soapbox, and they are able to help create a (positive) perception for the city.”
While Dayton’s 141,000 residents make up less than one-fifth of the region’s total population, the city is a job center drawing workers from dozens of suburbs. As such, it’s crucial to the health of the region, said Jeff Hoagland, president of the Dayton Development Coalition. Neither Hoagland nor Kershner endorsed either candidate.
“Whether you’re talking about Cleveland or Cincinnati or Columbus or Dayton, your large central city is important to the success of region,” said Hoagland, who also spent 19 years in the city governments of Kettering and Vandalia. “Having a strong central city is vital to the economy, and I think a mayor can have a positive impact on that.”
But University of Dayton economist Richard Stock cautioned about overstating the role of government in job market changes.
“I have to think that it is simply politics to suggest that the City Commission of Dayton would have been able to influence the decisions on factory closings that drove so much of the metropolitan area job loss over the last 12 years,” Stock said.
The Dayton Metropolitan Statistical Area, which includes Montgomery, Greene, Miami and Preble counties, has seen nonfarm employment drop by 20,000 jobs in five years. The area bottomed out 7,000 jobs lower than that in early 2010 before rebounding.
In recent weeks, a leading point of Wagner’s campaign has been that Dayton is a dying city, based mainly on the city’s loss of 9,200 jobs in the past five years. Wagner said he drew that figure from Ohio Job and Family Services data.
But two local economists say city-level jobs data is not reliable. According to JFS documents, Wagner’s data shows the number of city of Dayton residents who are employed anywhere, not the number of jobs located in the city. And JFS officials add that the largest piece of Dayton’s listed 9,200 drop was caused by population calculations.
Stock and city of Dayton economist Diane Shannon both added that JFS’ city-level jobs figure is not a count of true Dayton employment. Shannon said city employment numbers are estimated by taking county employment figures and adjusting for what percentage of the county population lives in Dayton.
Asked about the discrepancy, Wagner claimed that meant the numbers could be even worse.
“Based on what you presented today, that those are population-based numbers, not specific jobs, then the (job loss number) is probably too low,” Wagner said Thursday. “Most of the jobs that left the area left out of the city — NCR was in the city, Delphi, GM, MeadWestVaco was in the city.”
Asked at a recent candidate forum what the city could do to prevent businesses from leaving, Whaley suggested regular meetings with small businesses and entrepreneurs, and a personal touch, even with larger employers.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the relationships the mayor has,” Whaley said. “MidMark just moved to the UD campus from Versailles … and I went up to Versailles, met the CEO … to make sure they felt welcome and they had an ear at the city commission.”
When asked about bad job or financial statistics, Whaley sometimes points out the depth of last decade’s recession, and touts slow, steady recovery. Wagner says that’s not the whole picture.
“NCR didn’t leave because of the recession,” Wagner said. “Recently we lost Merrill Lynch, Thompson Hine, Think Patented — we didn’t lose them because of the recession. If we don’t change (the job decline), we can’t change anything else. There is a serious problem.”
The top item on Wagner’s Renaissance Dayton Jobs Plan is appointing an economic development director with more “hands-on experience in business, development and customer service.” He said the city’s existing economic development staff has been ineffective.
“Look at the record,” Wagner said. “We need to do something drastic and new and different. We have relied on bureaucrats, some of whom never held a job in the private sector or understood what it is to create a job.”
Wagner also calls for a tax incentive to be offered to any business that will create at least five high-wage jobs downtown or along key neighborhood corridors in an effort to revitalize those areas.
Whaley and Wagner agree on the need to target industries that have growth potential locally, such as aerospace and health care, and the need to improve Dayton’s workforce through education. Wagner has criticized the city for not streamlining its building permit and inspection processes based on a 2010 consultant’s report. Whaley agreed the city has not made enough progress in that area to satisfy small businesses.
Whaley’s jobs plan says the city should focus on eight existing assets and try to build around them – using Dayton’s abundance of water to attract high-volume users such as breweries and computer chip makers; cultivating relationships with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base to draw aerospace employers; enhancing the airport to partner with the growing number of logistics firms in the area.
Other assets she builds development ideas around are the greater downtown area, hospital and college campuses, the manufacturing base, Dayton’s entrepreneurial history and workforce development efforts through schools.
“We need a mayor who shows leadership on job creation,” Whaley said. “I think it’s one of the things we are missing. It’s not something a city commissioner can do. I’ve done a little bit of it, but businesses want to see a mayor. That’s really important.”
Barry Hall, owner of Champion Auto Service and president of the Greater Old North Dayton Business Association, said he wants to see a more common-sense approach to city regulations.
He cited a new GONDBA member business that was worried about protecting assets on its lot, but was told barbed wire wasn’t a permitted use even in that industrial area. Hall said he wishes the city would show the same respect to existing small businesses that they do to larger ones or those considering a move to the area.
Kershner said the Dayton region has been trending at or just below national unemployment averages. The city of Dayton’s unemployment rate (9.1 percent) is similar to that of Cleveland and Toledo, but at least 1.5 points higher than Columbus, Akron and Cincinnati.
“We were so heavily invested in automotive manufacturing in this area, so when auto manufacturing divested globally, we had a disproportionate number of job losses,” Kershner said. “To have that (impact) but still be trending at or below national unemployment averages has been very impressive to me.”
Hoagland said the DDC projects double-digit job growth for the region over the next five years in some of the industries Whaley, Wagner and city officials are targeting, such as aerospace, biosciences/health care and data management. He said the DDC works closely with city economic development staff and other regional partners.
“Look at the GE EPISCenter. That project easily could have been done in Cincinnati,” Hoagland said, adding that such a move likely would have cost the region other GE jobs. “Having the partnership with GE, the University of Dayton, the county, the city, the DDC and others, allowed the project to happen here. … And having a strong mayor gives additional benefits when you are recruiting companies.”
Both candidates promise to be that dynamic, involved mayor, but only one will get enough votes Nov. 5 to get that chance.
“I think Commissioner Whaley is satisfied moving forward with a plan she’s devised over the past eight years, and when we look at the past eight years, it hasn’t worked,” Wagner said.
Responded Whaley, “I have confidence in our future, and if we come behind that plan and really work, I feel like we have great days ahead of us.”
Read each candidate’s plan:
DEBATE ON TV TODAY
Watch Dayton mayoral candidates Nan Whaley and A.J. Wagner discuss key issues on WHIO-TV at 11 a.m. Sunday. Read full coverage of the debate in Monday’s Dayton Daily News. See video clips from the debate at DaytonDailyNews.com