onMain development at Dayton’s fairgrounds site delayed but hopeful

Leaders of long-term UD, Premier project pursuing funding, hope to share details in coming months



Five years after the Montgomery County Fair left its old location in the city of Dayton, the South Main Street Fairgrounds property remains fenced-off and undeveloped.

The University of Dayton and Premier Health announced plans in 2018 to create a thriving, mixed-use development there called “onMain.” They aimed to have the first building finished by spring 2022, but the COVID pandemic and its economic ripples got in the way.

A leader of the onMain nonprofit development group recently struck a balance — on the one hand saying the project has a lot of momentum now while also warning that it will be a gradual process.

“The vision for onMain to house a unique collaboration between private industry, government, and academia requires a methodical, strategic approach,” onMain CEO Brian Heitkamp said. “Our current areas of focus are the infrastructure, securing funding sources and shoring up key partnerships.”

Two of those partners remain upbeat, as officials with both the city of Dayton and Montgomery County expressed optimism about the project and its impact on local economic development.

“This is a real opportunity for businesses. When you think about 38 acres, you’re not going to find 38 acres that are ready to build on anywhere else in the city,” Montgomery County Commission President Debbie Lieberman said. “I think it’s just a great opportunity for us to grow businesses, welcome people here, and hopefully preserve some of (Dayton’s) historic nature.”

Project background

UD and Premier bought the site at the corner of Main and Stewart streets across from Miami Valley Hospital in 2017. The onMain site has been described as a future “live where you work” neighborhood and an “imagination district” — a hotspot for sustainable, pedestrian-friendly development with multi-family housing, businesses and outdoor event spaces.

A detailed five-year plan that was published just after the land was purchased included specific timelines, starting with a ThinkDayton business building at the Main-Stewart corner by 2022 that would focus on research, development and business incubation, plus education and training.

The 10-to-15-year plan originally included a buildout of more than a dozen residential and business buildings, along with a park, trails and plaza. A funding application suggested the project could create more than 1,000 jobs.

Officials at onMain did not go into detail about whether those plans have changed.

“We are hopeful to be able to share more specific details in the coming months and are confident the community is going to be pleased with how things are going to take shape over the next year or two,” Heitkamp said.

City and county hopes

Dayton City Manager Shelly Dickstein said the COVID pandemic pushed the project back, but added that onMain officials are working diligently to get back on track.

“COVID was not a help … but from my observation, everyone is back at the table working to solidify implementation for at least that first phase,” Dickstein said. “It truly was when COVID hit, it put everything on pause, (took) that 2 1/2 years out. It’s not uncommon for a project of that magnitude to take two to three years to get the strategic plan done.”

Dayton Mayor Jeffrey Mims, who was a city commissioner when the plan started, said he remains excited about the potential for growth at the site.

“The partnership with Premier and UD, the health component as well, and the future of things happening there as far as business is concerned, the housing opportunities — all of those things make that space a much more livable space and a big splash for innovation,” Mims said.

Lieberman said she hopes “the plans currently in place” will come to fruition over the next several years, and she also focused on the innovation angle.

“I think it will bring in creative minds. It’ll be a place where people want to be, people want to work, (and) where creatives want to live,” she said.

Next steps and funding

Heitkamp mentioned securing funding sources as a current focus.

In early funding applications, onMain officials said Premier and UD had invested $12.5 million in acquiring the property and preparing it for development. They said project partners were prepared to fund at least 50% of the $29.5 million required for Phase I infrastructure.

Those applications said the project was awarded $3.5 million from JobsOhio, and that the city of Dayton had committed $1 million. Congressional documents show that Sen. Sherrod Brown and Rep. Mike Turner have requested appropriations for the project.

Lieberman lauded UD and Premier for “making a major commitment to our community” adding that, “We’re going to figure out a way to make this work.”

“We know with what the state’s doing with their innovation hubs, we’re hoping that this will be a prime place that they will consider because when everything is put together, this is going to be incredible,” Lieberman said. “Now it’s just how are they going to fund it?”

Another potential funding opportunity is the Transformational Mixed-Use Development (TMUD) program through the Ohio Department of Development. Officials with onMain have repeatedly suggested their project would be a “catalytic development,” and TMUD provides tax credits toward construction of projects that will be “a catalyst for future development.”

Applications for the current round of that funding opened last week and close Sept. 8.

While many large projects have received federal COVID relief funding the past three years, it is unclear whether onMain received any of those funds.

In the meantime, development has surged around the former Fairgrounds site in the past several years.

To the south, the $35 million Emerson Helix center opened in 2016. To the east, Miami Valley Hospital built out the final two floors of its southeast tower in 2018. To the north, the $27 million Rehabilitation Institute of Ohio opened in 2020.

City officials expressed optimism that the momentum will continue, and that onMain will be worth the wait.

“There is a lot of momentum right now when it comes to onMain, which we believe is going to be a unique and catalytic development, first and foremost for our city, but also our region,” Heitkamp said.