A decade ago, the leaders of three organizations devoted to maintaining and promoting the region’s history faced tough questions from their financial donors.
The three groups - Carillon Park, the Kettering Moraine Museum, and the Montgomery County Historical Society - had similar missions and told similar stories. So why, their leaders were being asked, were there three of them?
The answer to that question - a merger of the three into a new organization called Dayton History - celebrated its first decade last week with a party for several hundred at Carillon Park at which proposals for $25 million in new development were unveiled. The organization’s budget is stable, attendance at its facilities is strong, and its track record has proven good for bringing plans to reality.
Dayton History is now considered a success, but the merger came only after a two-year process of debate over how best to preserve the region’s historic value.
“It did take time,” said Eric Cluxton, who in 2005 was a senior vice president at Fifth Third Bank and a board member at Carillon Park. “Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t a slam dunk.”
“There was some turf war stuff,” said Michael Merz, magistrate judge of U.S. District Court, Southern District of Ohio, in Dayton. At the time of the union, Merz was president of the historical society.
The organization owns or manages a popular brewery and attractions from Dayton to Greene County, sites that by May this year had already drawn a quarter of a million visitors.
“I think the proof is in the pudding,” Merz said. “Good lord, Brady (Kress, Dayton History president and chief executive) has built a beautiful empire of buildings and artifacts.”
Growth in budgets, attendance
In 2005, the annual operating budgets of the three merged organizations was about $1.5 million. This past year, Dayton History’s budget was about $4.5 million, Michael Leesman, chairman of Dayton History’s Board of Trustees, told members at a Carillon Park celebration last week.
In 2005, the organizations claimed 876 members. Today Dayton History counts more than 2,500 members, he said.
And Dayton History has enjoyed 15 percent growth in business revenue and 27 percent growth in visitations this year, hitting some 250,000 visitors to various sites by May, he said.
Rob Connelly, who served on the board of Carillon Park in 2003, said they hired Brady Kress with a merger in mind. He toured the park with Kress the day before Thanksgiving 2003 and talked over the possibilities.
“We just dreamed,” said Connelly, who is CEO of Eaton-based food preparation equipment manufacturer Henny Penny Corp.
Declining population and declining support drove the need for a single locally focused historical organization, Kress said in an interview last week. People like Michael Parks, president of the Dayton Foundation, were also urging nonprofits become more efficient with resources, he said.
“We noticed that there were really three separate organizations in town telling the exact same stories,” Kress said.
Carillon Park, the historical society and the Kettering-Moraine Museum were all sharing histories of the Wright brothers, NCR Corp. and General Motors, Frigidaire, Dayton inventor and entrepreneur Charles Kettering and more.
Merz said the idea was born out of attempts to raise money for the historical society and the old courthouse downtown.
Important donors were asking why there was more than one historical organization. “That was a great question,” Merz said.
“It got to the point where Carillon and the historical society starting to talk about partnering and doing things,” Kress said. “Those conversations went on. And then they really came to life during the centennial of flight celebration.”
Dayton-area groups came together in several ways in 2003 to mark the 100-year anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
“Everybody was kind of trying to tell the same story of the Wright brothers and their success,” Kress said. “I think that was probably the moment at which the fire started.”
Kress was leading only Carillon Park at the time, the job for which Connelly had hired him.
But Kress said he understood he was brought on “with the express purpose” of putting together a new organization that would be “an umbrella service, an umbrella for other organizations.”
Overcoming resistance, personalities
There was initial resistance to a merger.
“With any merger, there are personalities,” Kress said.
As the merger progressed, some participants balked. “You reach that point where folks were like, wow, this really might happen. And I might not sitting in the same office that I sit in now,” he said.
But remaining separate wasn’t working, Connelly and others said. Carillon Park, for example, wasn’t open year-round.
“That was kind of a sleepy organization,” Merz said of the park at the time.
Those backing a merger felt that if the organizations stayed separate, they would run out of money.
“The environment 10 years ago was clear that resources were going to become more precious,” Parks said. “And organizations with foresight were looking at how they could more effectively collaborate and merge. And Dayton History was on the leading edge of those organizations.”
Parks said the merger succeeded for two reasons. First, those pursuing a merger secured “outstanding outside help” from Strategic Leadership Associates, a Dayton-based consultant who had helped guide more than 400 mergers and alliances all over North America.
“Having competent, experienced consultants was really helpful because it’s uncharted waters,” Parks said.
Parks also points to Connelly.
“The merger wouldn’t have happened with Rob Connelly,” Parks said. “Because he saw a vision. And he’s volunteer, right? He’s not a staff person, he’s a volunteer.”
In interviews, every participant credited others. Connelly himself credits Kress for his work. And Kress credited Merz and others with helping to overcome early inertia.
“What we feel great about is, we’re in a situation where we’re 10 years in,” Kress said. “And in 10 years, we have accomplished all of the goals we set out.”
Those goals included milestones in greater efficiency and attractive programming.
Said Kress, “At the end of the day, we’re nailing all of these.”
Leaders also quelled looming battles over who would possess historical items of local note, Kress said. “We stopped what was going to be a fight between Carillon and … the historical society.”
Now, collections and items of significance are under one metaphorical roof.
“Everybody in the region, everybody in the country, can (now) enjoy those artifacts in one place,” Kress said.
The new organization is responsible for sites that include Orville Wright’s home in Oakwood, Hawthorn Hill; the Paul Laurence Dunbar House in Dayton and the Learning Center of the National Aviation Hall of Fame at the National Museum of the U.S. Air Force. The organization this month bought the Schantz Avenue building that formerly housed restaurant Neil’s Heritage House, less for its historic value but as a facility with ample parking. Last year it opened the Carillon Brewing Co., touted as the only museum with a licensed brewery.
But there are some quibbles, even from supporters.
“I could wish that the new organization was more devoted to written history,” Merz said, before adding: “But buildings are what draw people.”