‘Unbelievable and positive:’ Optimism abounds for the Dayton region of the future

A diverse group of Dayton region leaders and experts looking two decades into the region’s future have a great deal of optimism, but they say it is imperative to leverage existing assets, continue making smart investments and decisions and to remember the hard lessons of the past.

“I feel like people in Dayton generally are positive, they’re positive about their community, they’re positive about what the future can bring and are open-minded to change,” said Deborah Feldman, president and CEO of Dayton Children’s Hospital and former longtime Montgomery County administrator. Maybe we have had to go through so much change that we are more open-minded.”

Feldman and others interviewed said they know the region will face challenges but they are hopeful about future Dayton.



“I think its going to take hard work and we need to keep our eye on changes that happen, trends that are happening nationally and internationally and how they impact us. But overall I think if we do that and we come together the way we always have we have a bright future,” Feldman said.

Nineteen local leaders and experts from the business, health care, government and education sectors were interviewed about what they expect and hope the multi-county Dayton region will be like in 20-25 years and what should be done to meet the challenges of the future.

They said those challenges will include finding ways to invest more in the education of children, attract and retain a talented workforce, meet the needs of an aging population, manage technological change, have enough affordable housing, protect the region’s water supply and cope with climate change.

It is impossible to know for sure what the future will bring, or if a calamity like the COVID-19 pandemic will again upend lives, plans and the economy. But those interviewed say the region’s culture of innovation and collaboration along with key assets like Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and robust educational and health care institutions will help the Dayton region prevail and thrive regardless of what the future throws at us.

Credit: Easterling Studios

Credit: Easterling Studios

“We have great bones in this region. There are a lot of really great assets to continue build on,” said Dayton City Manager Shelley Dickstein. “I think the biggest thing is making sure that we are intentional and strategic when it comes to the muscle network that we are putting around those bones.”

Collaborative planning

The region’s strategies for the future are developed through a variety of collaborative processes, typically involving stakeholders throughout the multi-county area, including government, businesses, educators, non-profits, development groups and citizens.

“The region is well-prepared to overcome any potential hurdles due to the authentic way partners here collaborate. When challenges arise in the Dayton region, communities, organizations and leaders band together, and that is arguably our greatest strength and what sets us apart from other communities in the state and across the nation,” said Stacy Wall Schweikhart, CEO of Learn to Earn Dayton and co-author of the new Dayton Region Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy (CEDS) when she was with the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission (MVRPC).

The Dayton region’s planning documents and processes include:

  • The 2022-2026 CEDS sets economic development goals, strategies for achieving them, and an evaluation framework for Auglaize, Butler, Champaign, Clark, Clinton, Darke, Greene, Mercer, Miami, Montgomery, Preble, Shelby and Warren counties.
  • The Dayton Development Coalition’s (DDC) Wright-Patt 2030 is a plan to grow and retain missions and development on and around the base, where 32,000 people work, making it the state’s largest single-site employer.
  • The DDC’s Dayton Region Priority Development and Advocacy Committee helps establish regional public funding priorities to benefit economic development, health, education and quality of life for the 14-county region.
  • The MVPRC does planning and research for infrastructure, transportation, clean air and water, and climate change.

“No one has a crystal ball to predict what the future holds, but we believe our region is on a strong course for the future. National defense missions at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, growth in the electric vehicle industry, both cars and aircraft, and changes in consumer habits and supply chains offer exciting opportunities for growth in our region,” said Jeff Hoagland, president and CEO of the DDC, which is the western regional partner of JobsOhio, the state’s privatized economic development arm.

Credit: Knack Video + Photo

Credit: Knack Video + Photo

“Our culture of innovation also provides a path for future growth. Finding ways to nurture innovators and help them grow their businesses here is a critical part of our regional economy. We also know much of our growth comes from existing companies, both large and small,” Hoagland said. “Communities also need to be flexible and able to adapt to changes in the economy. As we’ve seen in the past 25 years, the economy can take unexpected twists and turns.”

It will be important to continue getting funding to build and maintain infrastructure, including roads, bridges and water and sewer systems, as well as making sure the region is prepared for an increase in electric vehicles, more automated transportation and wider use of drones for delivery and other purposes, said Brian Martin, executive director of MVRPC.

Improved broadband access also is essential, said Morakinyo A.O. Kuti, vice president for research and economic development at Central State University.

“Broadband should be considered a utility as it is a vehicle that many services must have to conduct operations,” Kuti said. “Reliable broadband networks will form the backbone on which education, health, and economic systems operate.”

Climate change will be a big challenge in coming years. It could bring longer, hotter summers, shorter winters, negative impacts on agriculture as well as flooding that will put major pressure on infrastructure, said Krishna Kumar V. Nedunuri, Central State University professor of environmental engineering and director of the water quality lab at the International Center for Water Resources Management.

Those interviewed said the region’s strengths include an increasingly diversified local economy, a relatively low cost of living, affordable housing, proximity to the nexus of interstates 70 and 75 and an array of amenities including a strong arts scene and library system, parks, recreation trails, popular sports teams, and the Dayton International Airport.

Underpinning all of it are the people who live here.

Credit: Erin Pence

Credit: Erin Pence

“The people within the region are its strongest assets. And I say that primarily because I think it has a very strong sense of community and belonging,” said Wright State University President Sue Edwards, who came here in 2018 as WSU provost. “And I think from that perspective whatever the region sets its mind to I think they have that ‘can-do’ attitude and they roll their sleeves up and are just going to get the work done.”

Challenges and opportunities

The Dayton region learned the hard way that overdependence on one industry is dangerous. Tens of thousands of automotive industry jobs evaporated over the years leading up to and after the Great Recession.

“We’ve learned a lot from our experiences as a GM town and our businesses have found ways to stay resilient and build new opportunities for themselves,” said Montgomery County Commissioner Debbie Lieberman. “We have a strong base of manufacturing and have seen a lot of innovation coming out of Wright-Patterson that helps us to stay relevant in a constantly changing economy.”

Officials hope that the broad range of missions at the base, growth of related businesses off base, the booming aerospace industry and the region’s intense focus on making sure the federal government does not make cuts at Wright-Patt will ensure that anchor remains here.

“It’s not going anywhere, I think, in the next 20 to 25 years,” said Steven Johnson, president of Sinclair Community College since 2003. “If this community is supportive of the Air Force, the military (and) the Air Force will be here for us.”

The region remains challenged by blighted inner-city neighborhoods, Dayton Public Schools’ struggle with low performance on statewide standards and the poverty rate, which was 27.6% in Dayton in 2021, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data.

By comparison, the poverty rate was 15.3% in Montgomery County, 13.4% in Ohio and 12.8% in the U.S.

Eric F. Spina, president of the University of Dayton since 2016, said the region has made great progress economically but some people have been left behind.

“For us to really continue to seize the opportunities that are here (what’s needed is) trying to erode some of the inequities in our community,” Spina said.

He said it is essential that progress be made so people in disadvantaged families “can get the education and get placed in jobs, so they can make sure their family is benefitting from all that the Dayton region has to offer.”

Economic growth must be inclusive, said Stephanie Keinath, vice president of strategic initiatives at Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.

“We’ve made strides, and have incredible work being done across our community towards inclusive and equitable growth. However, we have a long way to go to ensure that all parts of our community and all members of our community benefit from the investments being made,” Keinath said. “We understand that small business growth and supporting our minority and diverse business leaders and owners will be such a critical part of ensuring a more equitable future for Dayton over the next 20 years.”

The city of Dayton is beginning a major effort to tear down 1,000 blighted vacant houses to create more green space and make room for new housing, said Dayton Mayor Jeffrey Mims Jr.

A partnership with the Montgomery County Land Bank will rehab other vacant housing to create market-rate homes. Federal COVID-19 relief funds are helping with both projects.

Dickstein said the plan is to concentrate efforts on socioeconomically diverse neighborhoods to help stabilize them and in the process reduce poverty.

“I don’t know if our country, let alone Dayton, will ever solve poverty,” Dickstein said. “I think we could if we all wanted to and there was a collective will. I don’t know that that will ever happen, but certainly we will reduce it.”

She said education, access to jobs and affordable housing are key to beating back poverty and giving people hope in the years to come.

“We can’t continue to underserve those who need it the most,” Mims said, arguing that the state should provide much stronger financial support to Dayton Public Schools and there must be more opportunities for students once they graduate.

Several of those interviewed emphasized the need to boost funding for early childhood education and beyond.

Credit: HUE12, LLC

Credit: HUE12, LLC

“By investing in our youth today, we are investing in our community for years to come. In 25 years from now, our CEOs and workforce leaders will be the youth who are in school today,” said Montgomery County Administrator Michael Colbert.

The county offers an array of youth and job training programs. And there are growing efforts by the region’s K-12 and higher education institutions, in consultation with businesses about their needs, to bolster workforce development, including adding microcredentials like certifications for specific skills, to prepare people for the jobs of today and the future.

“When you talk about workforce and talent development you’re talking about education. The cost of it and how it will be funded and who pays what is one of the greatest debates of the last 20 years,” Johnson said. “I would expect this will continue to be debated and fought over for the next 20 years.”

Economic development and workforce

The region’s ability to supply a skilled workforce is essential to economic development, according to those interviewed.

The CEDS identified talent attraction and retention as the top regional priority and Keinath said one way to help with that is to make sure the region can meet the needs of workers and their families.

“In 25 years, we’ll have no problem attracting new, diverse talent to our community if they can afford to buy a house, send their children to high-quality child care and access multi-modal transportation that connects our whole region,” Keinath said.

The growth in remote work across the U.S. also could benefit the Dayton region, said retired U.S. Air Force Col. Cassie Barlow, president of the Strategic Ohio Council for Higher Education and former 88th Air Base Wing commander at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

“Dayton could be a wonderful place for people who work 100% remotely to gather, because of our amenities,” Barlow said. “We would need a robust plan to attract these individuals to our community.”

Credit: Alexis Larsen

Credit: Alexis Larsen

A major bright spot in recent years is booming growth in downtown Dayton. Public investments years ago in the Dayton Dragons baseball stadium, Riverscape, and the Benjamin and Marian Schuster Performing Arts Center sparked large private investments in housing and other businesses in recent years, Feldman said.

“It took a long time to see the results of that and we are now beginning to see with the housing and other developments there,” Feldman said. “Now COVID did punch that a little bit and it’s going to take some time to come back, like all downtowns.”

Lieberman said local companies growing and new ones opening make the region stronger.

New developments that set the region up for success and job growth in a high-tech future include the new Sierra Nevada Corp. aircraft maintenance and overhaul facility at the airport, the Honda/LG Energy Solution $3.5 billion electric vehicle battery plant being built in Fayette County, and Intel’s $20 billion semiconductor chip manufacturing facility being built near Columbus.

“Dayton and Ohio have not seen this level of opportunity in decades. It is really unbelievable and positive,” Johnson said. “The number of different kinds of industries that are interested in Ohio and the Dayton region that are moving in and expanding is just gobsmacking.”

“It’s not like it had been the last 40 years, where all the news was attrition,” he said. “Now it seems like 90% of the news is growth and expansion.”

Barlow said it will be important to stay focused on making sure employers in the region’s key industries have what they need to continue growing.



“Our best opportunities in the next 20-25 years will be focused on the growth of our large industries: aerospace, defense, manufacturing, health care, logistics and information technology,” Barlow said.

Those interviewed were clear-eyed about the future challenges that the region could face, but said the region and its people are well-prepared.

“I’m an eternal optimist. I think the opportunities for this region are off the charts,” Edwards said. “We just have to ensure that we capitalize on those opportunities.”

The Dayton Daily News celebrates 125 years

The first edition of the Dayton Daily News published on Aug. 22, 1898. We’ve spent the past week celebrating that anniversary with stories, photos and graphics about the past and future of the Dayton region and the role of the Dayton Daily News in covering and participating in that path.

Story participants

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Cassie Barlow, president - Strategic Ohio Council for Higher Education

Bob Brecha, director of sustainability program - University of Dayton

Michael Colbert, administrator - Montgomery County

Shelley Dickstein, city manager - Dayton

Sue Edwards, president - Wright State University

Deborah Feldman, president and CEO - Dayton Children’s Hospital

Alcinda Folck, interim associate extension director and state program leader for agriculture and natural resources - Central State University

Jeff Hoagland, president and CEO - Dayton Development Coalition

Steven Johnson, president - Sinclair Community College

Ramanitharan Kandiah, professor of environmental engineering and chair of water resources management department - Central State University

Stephanie Keinath, vice president of strategic initiatives - Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce

Morakinyo A.O. Kuti, vice president for research and economic development - Central State University

Vince Lewis, associate vice president of entrepreneurial initiatives - University of Dayton

Debbie Lieberman, commissioner - Montgomery County

Brian Martin, executive director - Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission

Jeffrey Mims, Jr., mayor - Dayton

Krishna Kumar V. Nedunuri, professor of environmental engineering and director of the water quality lab at the International Center for Water Resources Management - Central State University

Stacy Wall Schweikhart, CEO - Learn to Earn Dayton

Eric F. Spina, president - University of Dayton

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