Hara Arena redevelopment faces challenges

Developers suggest revitalization must be tied to public/private partnership.

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Hara Arena will soon be closed. But if that site and others like it are to have a shot at new commercial life, then developers and investors must be convinced that a realistic business case can be made for revitalization.

Advocates and elected officials that have seen neglect and development challenges in the Dayton area think that case can be made — if developers are willing to see it.

And indeed, some development is happening in historically neglected areas. In June, Dayton Metro Library announced plans to invest $10 million transforming seven acres at the former Wright Co. airplane factory just north of U.S. 35 into a new library branch.

The roughly 24,000-square-foot library will be centrally located and could spark new development, Tim Kambitsch, executive director of the Dayton Metro Library, said.

“We think it will be an oasis in West Dayton,” he said.

Trotwood City Manager Quincy Pope contends that “an outstanding geographic location” helps make the case for any developer eyeing the Hara Area site. The family that owns the property for the past 60 years announced two weeks ago it was closing the arena later this month. Its size — more than 100 acres — also helps, Pope said.

“You’re within 14 minutes of Dayton International Airport,” Pope said. “You’ve got access, within seven minutes, of (interstates) 70 and 75. I think you have the (Salem Avenue-U.S. 35-Trotwood) connector that’s less than a mile away from there.

“I think there’s access. There’s a good location for development,” Pope added.

Competition hurts

Hara’s location never hurt it, Pope believes. Instead, a proliferation of competing venues — newer sites such as Wright State University’s Ervin J. Nutter center and, most recently, the Rose Music Center at The Heights — took their toll over decades.

“I think the market just caught up with it,” Pope said.

Other factors may have harmed Hara. Dave Dickerson, Dayton market president of developer Miller-Valentine, said the completion of Interstate 675 in the mid-1980s pulled much development east, while a decades-long general shift southward pulled the center of gravity for much development toward Cincinnati.

But Trotwood Mayor Mary McDonald believes the closing of the Dayton International Airport Expo Center off McCauley Drive presents a “huge opportunity.”

“It’s proven over time that it can handle large crowds and capacity,” the mayor said of Hara. “The opportunity for entertainment as well expo shows — there’s an unlimited potential to the actual space.”

She concedes that renovations will be necessary, though.

What developers want

Tom Gunlock — a principal with RG Properties which is developing the burgeoning area around the Austin Boulevard-I-75 interchange — guesses that “serious infrastructure issues” will have to be addressed at Hara.

But there’s a deeper issue at work. Gunlock said development sites need to be accessible, especially to potential customers and those willing to spend money. And developers need to see that potential before they take risks, he said.

“A true need needs to be identified before anything can happen,” Gunlock said. “If the item you are selling is not needed, then it is for naught … someone needs to identify a need and then determine if economically they can fulfill that need.”

The demographics of how things work are pretty critical to whether or not a developer will come in and develop a site, according to Brad White, vice president, brownfields, for Mason-based Hull, the developer behind the Wright factory project in West Dayton.

“There have to be people willing to spend money on whatever activity takes place in a development,” White said.

“So if there’s going to be apartment complex, there have to be potential renters,” he said. “You have to know what the demand for apartments is. If people are going to buy things in a store, there have to be shoppers. Those are the key elements.”

“The plans are pretty well sketched out before anybody speculatively buys anything,” he added.

Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the National Aviation Heritage Alliance, said the alliance wants to do more than preserve the former Wright factory — the first airplane factory in the United States — for historical reasons. It also wants to attract manufacturing and commercial activity to the area.

That goal isn’t an easy one.

“But we knew that going into this, that it wouldn’t be an easy task,” Sculimbrene said.

The project is on its way, he believes. State money has gone toward the area’s remediation, the Dayton Metro Library has made clear its plans and the former Wright buildings are part of a national park.

“We got a great anchor tenant with the library,” Sculimbrene said.

White’s company specializes in “especially distressed” properties that have become a major liability for owners, typically industrial companies.

With the arena specifically, the property and its structures need to be in a serviceable condition, Gunlock said.

“I have no idea what that would entail — and the cost of those repairs would have to be part of the calculation,” he said.

He suggested some type of residential development may be another possibility. “As far as a (further) retail development, probably not in the foreseeable future, as you have all that already in the area,” he said.

Public-private partnerships

Industrial decay and neighborhood decay often go hand in hand, and addressing it usually takes government involvement, White said.

“We always have a public-private partnership, like in the case of the city of Dayton for the Wright factory site,” he said.

Hull’s strength is to tackle projects from which other developers may shy away, White said.

When it declared bankruptcy, Delphi formed DPH Holdings LLC, an entity responsible for the sale and disposal of assets and properties the company no longer wanted.

Hull created a limited liability company, Home Avenue Redevelopment, to acquire the Wright factory property from DPH Holdings. The company won a $3 million Clean Ohio Revitalization Fund grant to clean the area, tearing down the old Home Avenue Delphi plant, while preserving a chain of hangar-shaped buildings associated with the Wright brothers’ early 20th century airplane factory.

In 2009, Congress added the 20-acre site of the former Wright buildings to the boundary of the National Park Service’s Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, further protecting the site.

Work in distressed areas requires not just the cooperation of a property’s former owner, but city, state or federal governments — or all of the above.

“We typically have a multi-tiered partnership that involves the former owner … and then typically, the local community engagement piece,” White said. “We’re working towards a goal that the community wants, like with the Wright factory. We have a development agreement with the city.”

These jobs can’t be tackled alone, White said.

“They can be a challenge, but we don’t enter into a project until we have a clear idea what the redevelopment plan is,” he said.

Miller-Valentine’s Dickerson believes the city of Trotwood should start with a market study of the area. Any transformation of that kind of property is traditionally led by the public sector, he said.

Public dollars at the local, county and state level should be sought, he said.

“There are a lot of tools in the toolkit for these things to happen,” said Dickerson, whose firm has secured $20 million in Ohio low-income housing tax credits for the revitalization of the downtown Dayton Arcade.

Those conducting a market study should ask what potential uses are realistic, Dickerson said.

Said Dickerson: “Things change, trends change, patterns change, and that’s when I think you look at the best use of the property. … Going forward, you need to look at what the patterns are, the demographics.”

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