A grassroots effort has been launched to further spark small business and entrepreneur growth in downtown Dayton in hopes of adding to the 100 new startups started there in the past five years.
Start Downtown, a new project organized by the Downtown Dayton Partnership, aims to spur new development through specific volunteer-led programs and initiatives aimed at entrepreneurs and small business owners.
“We’ve witnessed a surge in startups downtown,” said Scott Murphy, of the Downtown Dayton Partnership “Small businesses are really the backbone of downtown’s economic community. We’re stepping up to ensure those entrepreneurs have the support they need.”
The partnership and community leaders launched the programs during an Tuesday open forum. They hope to address issues like the lack of funding opportunities for small business owners and a fragmented network of entrepreneurs.
In May, the partnership, the city and the Dayton Development Coalition hosted a series of discussions on challenges and opportunities facing small businesses — about 100 professionals gave feedback during the sessions.
Murphy said the objective is clear: Startups can thrive downtown and the city has to create an environment conducive to small business growth.
In a special report by the Dayton Daily News last week, business leaders described the downtown atmosphere as in the midst of a “renaissance.”
More than $520 million has been funneled into public and private sector investments since 2010 to transform the city — and another $530 million has been invested in projects underway or in the design phase.
As part of Start Downtown, leaders launched five projects to help address the issues hindering growth within downtown. The group of leaders is comprised Murphy, A.J. Ferguson of UpDayton, Bonnie Kling of Nucleus, businessman Seth Hummel, Brett Chmiel of Chaminade Julienne Catholic High School, and aerospace engineer Ryan Helbach.
Projects include the launch of a pop-up coworking program, which will allow entrepreneurs to make “organic and intentional connections” with other entrepreneurs, Ferguson said.
Ferguson, who leads the pop-up coworking, said the first co-working session is scheduled for Nov. 3 at the Dayton Beer Company. He said one of the issues that Dayton faces is a physically fragmented network of businesses.
Eventually, Start Downtown would like to see a physical hub in the urban core of the city for entrepreneurs. Nucleus, a popular co-working space in the Oregon District, just expanded to another location near Wright State University.
Murphy said instead of businesses being blocks away from each other, he’d like to see more businesses inhabit space in downtown Dayton.
The total occupancy rate is about 86.9 percent for “move-in ready” downtown spaces of first floor properties — often used for businesses like brewpubs, boutiques, restaurants and specialty shops, according to the downtown partnership.
But a lot more office space remains available for use. The Miller-Valentine Group Realty Office survey tracks 42 office buildings in the central business district. Of the 4,582,508 square footage sampled, more than 32 percent of that is vacant.
Jeff Mohlman, an investor who just bought a building on East Monument Avenue in downtown, said he thinks more vacant buildings will be bought downtown as young professionals and empty-nesters move downtown.
The five-story building he bought is located at 804 East Monument Avenue, and the investors plan on turning four of the floors into storage units, and the first floor will remain office and warehouse space.
There are roughly 800 employers in the central business district of downtown, Murphy said. More than 700 of those are small businesses — many of them with 25 employees or less.
Beyond the co-working project and addressing the lack of business density in the city, Start Downtown features four other projects: a video series that highlights local entrepreneurs, another program that aims to connect startups with well-established companies, and crowd-funding team for entrepreneurs through the website Kiva.
“Dayton has huge potential to reclaim its title as an innovation center,” said Rick Peters, CEO at Ascend Innovations and volunteer chair of the Start Downtown initiative. “This grassroots effort aims to capitalize on the current business climate and encourage more small businesses to launch in our center city.”