Can Dayton get its mojo back? Economist says yes

When did Dayton — home to the world’s most advanced Air Force base and Ohio’s biggest single-site employer — somehow become synonymous with “decline?”

Business Insider magazine last month ran a story about “10 American cities that have fallen into decline.” Dayton made that list.

Dayton was ranked No. 10 because it has lost 46.1 percent of its population since its peak population nearly 60 years ago, according to the magazine.

Urban researcher Adam Millsap, 35, knows Dayton in and out. An area native and Miami University grad, Millsap is assistant director of the Hilton Center at Florida State University, and he has studied Dayton and similarly situated cities for a while.

In fact, he’s the author of a new study, titled, “How the Gem City Lost its Luster and How it Can Get it Back: A Case Study of Dayton, Ohio.”

Millsap’s thesis: Dayton and cities like it need to create a “policy of permissionless innovation” to let innovative businesses do their thing.

The Dayton Daily News recently interviewed him; this is an edited transcript.

Q: So you’re from the area?

Millsap: “That’s right. I lived in Dayton until the second grade, and then my family moved out to Beavercreek, and that’s where I went to high school.”

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Q: Do you return very often?

Millsap: “At least a couple of times a year.”

Q: What exactly are you looking at when it comes to Dayton?

Millsap: “When I got into economics, I really got into urban economics. I really wanted to understand why some cities grow and why some cities shrink. That became my research question of interest.

“I started reading about that. Being from a city like Dayton that went through this process of being very large, relatively large, then the population declined and people moved out into the suburbs — to me, it just became a natural thing for me to look at in more detail.

“Once I kind of read all the academic literature that talks about why some cities grow and some cities shrink, I really wanted to apply it to Dayton in particular because that’s what I’m familiar with.”

Q: OK, so what problems does Dayton face?

Millsap: “One of the problems with places like Dayton and Detroit and those kinds of areas is that they had some large employers starting in the ’20s and the ’30s. When you think of Dayton you had NCR being one of the big ones. GM had a big presence in Dayton for a long time.

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“When those companies started fading away in the ’70s and ’80s and ’90s, there were really no new companies that came in. No one was starting anything new to take their place.”

Q: What should we be doing?

Millsap: “There’s no silver bullet. My first thing would be, there’s no one policy that cities can do that’s going to kickstart population growth, kickstart employment growth. Cities, when you think about what they are, they are … places of specialization and innovation.

“A lot of innovation happens in cities because of population density and people sharing ideas. But cities really have to view themselves as supporting that role and think about what they can do to support this environment where people can try new ideas.

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“What they should do — anything that they do that might hamper innovation that’s not necessary, they need to reevaluate. Some cities review their own regulations. A lot of times officials might not know exactly how regulations impact businesses, entrepreneurs in general. So it’s really good take some feedback from the community.”

Q: Dayton leaders make a point of welcoming immigrants and newcomers. Are those among the steps cities like ours should take?

Millsap: “Absolutely. People are resources. I would certainly encourage cities to welcome in immigrants, people who want to start small businesses, encourage them, get out of their way, kind of minimize the red tape where you can to get that started.”

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