Airport official says prairie redevelopment will bring 600-700 new jobs

Dayton’s aviation director says the airport’s controversial proposal to sell land that holds one of the oldest reconstructed prairies in the state for redevelopment will bring hundreds of new jobs.

The Dayton International Airport is obligated to find the highest and best use of its properties, and the project proposed for the Paul E. Knoop Jr. Prairie site could bring about 600 to 700 Tier 1 manufacturing jobs, resulting in an estimated $100 million impact, said Terry Slaybaugh, aviation director.

But airport and city of Dayton leaders have received emails and messages from community members and groups urging the city to preserve the prairie and find an alternative site for the project. The prairie is at the northeast corner of Frederick Pike and West National Road.

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The biggest concern with the development relates to water, as Wiles Creek starts on the Knoop Prairie and runs through Aullwood Audubon’s property and extends south into Aullwood Garden MetroPark, said Alexis Faust, executive director of Aullwood Audubon.

“This, to us, is a water and water quality issue,” she said. “We have streams, ponds, wetlands, marsh and Wiles creek on which the wildlife depend, and we also must maintain two EPA regulated public well systems — one at the farm property and one at the nature center.”

Slaybaugh said he plans to meet with Five Rivers MetroParks and Aullwood officials to discuss their concerns about the site. He said the city has hired an environmental consultant to do an independent assessment of the property, and stakeholders will get opportunities to sit down with the developer to provide input on the site plan.

The 140-acre prairie property was acquired by the city of Dayton in 1993 using federal funds as part of a noise mitigation program, airport officials said.

In 1995, the city approved a lease with Aullwood to maintain a prairie that was created and named after naturalist and long-time Aullwood employee Paul Knoop Jr.

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The lease expired and was not renewed in 2007 based on concerns raised by the Federal Aviation Administration over wildlife hazards to airplanes, Slaybaugh.

The FAA stated prairie grass was not compatible with airport operations, and airports should not have noncompatible land uses within 10,000 feet of the runways, Slaybaugh said.

Since 2012, the airport has created 260 acres of prairie and warm season native grasses as part of an experimental ground cover program on property around the aviation facility that was traditionally farm land, Slaybaugh said.

The airport’s work with Aullwood has found prairie and native warm season grasses can discourage geese and other large birds that are threats to airplanes, and the airport has become a leading proponent of using this type of ground cover, Slaybaugh said.

Multiple pieces of airport property north of West National Road are being converted to tall grass lands, and 30 acres of the prairie site will remain native warm season grasses, he said.

However, Slaybaugh said, the airport does not have the FAA’s endorsement to use prairie grass on land near its runways, and NorthPoint Development’s proposed project is the best use for the prairie land since it will bring hundreds of new jobs.

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Since 2016, developers have built 2.7 million square feet of logistics and manufacturing space on airport property, and the facilities will create 2,300 jobs by the end of this year, Slaybaugh said.

The Dayton airport is the 86th largest commercial airport in the United States, employs 2,800 employees and has a $1 billion economic impact each year, Slaybaugh said.

Redevelopment of the prairie could hurt the health of the watershed, which is worrisome because Wiles Creek is critical to Aullwood’s wildlife and ecosystem, said Knoop, 84, who worked for Aullwood for 35 years and helped plant the prairie.

Knoop said he assumes developers would create retaining basins to hold back storm water, but he’s concerned that strong rains could create problems.

“It’s disturbing they want to develop it with industry,” he said.

Monica Snow, a Dayton resident, has questioned whether NorthPoint Development’s clients would really go somewhere else if this particular piece of land could not be developed. She said there must be land outside the watershed that meets their needs. The airport manages about 4,800 acres of property.

“This critical environmental asset cannot be replaced by future prairie acreage that could never compensate for the ongoing environmental loss and harm caused by the proposed development,” Snow wrote in a message to Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley.

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