Dayton wants to reinvent itself the way Pittsburgh transformed from a once-dying mill town into a thriving, hotbed of commercial and residential activity.
But the “Steel City” had some unique advantages over Dayton and other Rust Belt cities, and even if the strategies can be replicated, the payoff could take a long time.
“What happened to Pittsburgh, what happened to Detroit and what happened to Dayton didn’t take five years,” said Dennis Yablonsky, CEO of the Allegheny Conference on Community Development, a public-private partnership dedicated to improving the Pittsburgh region’s economy. “And frankly, it took us 30 years to really turn it around, and it is only in the last five to seven years you see the numbers really reflect it, in terms of jobs and unemployment.”
Pittsburgh and Dayton share a growing bond.
Last month, Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto visited Dayton to provide the keynote address at the Miami Valley Cycling Summit in Piqua.
Peduto also met with local representatives to discuss green initiatives going on in his city that are saving money and reducing energy consumption.
Last week, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley, Assistant City Manager Shelley Dickstein and local business leaders were in Pittsburgh as part of a CEOs for Cities workshop.
Whaley introduced Peduto at the event, and area officials took a tour of the city to see how its work on riverfront development, diversifying the economy and investing in quality-of-life amenities.
The two cities once had much in common.
Both suffered through the collapse of their main industries and lost huge numbers of jobs and residents.
The steel industry imploded in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and the Pittsburgh region saw about 150,000 manufacturing jobs disappear in a short period. That contributed to about 250,000 people moving out of the area.
A loss of industry in the Dayton region also led to an exodus of people: Dayton had 203,371 residents in 1980 compared to 143,355 today.
The past, the present
Pittsburgh had trouble letting go of its steel-mill legacy. But some of the city’s key institutions and partners managed to lay the foundation for a promising future.
Universities and health care, financial services, technology and knowledge-based industries drove a massive restructuring of the local economy, said Sabina Deitrick, a director of the Urban and Regional Analysis research program at the University of Pittsburgh.
The University of Pittsburgh transitioned from a regional, private university to a public institution with a medical school that prioritized expansion and grant acquisition, she said.
The University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine became a national player. Research has become a large part of the University of Pittsburgh’s identity and output. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center is a top-notch health care system.
Carnegie Mellon University evolved from a regional engineering school to an internationally-recognized tech college, Deitrick said.
Investments in the hospital system, medical schools, research centers and other programs helped the city’s economy become more dynamic and diverse, she said.
Also, in the 1990s, hundreds of leaders from academia, government, business and other fields worked with Harvard researchers to analyze the regional economy, said Yablonsky, with the Allegheny Conference.
They identified five “industrial clusters” that could make the region innovative and competitive, and they focused resources and efforts to build up three legacy sectors (manufacturing, energy, finance, etc.) and two new ones (information technology and health care), he said.
Local leaders worked toward shared goals, and private-public partnerships leveraged billions of dollars to invest in infrastructure, environmental cleanup and quality of place — a new term for quality-of-life issues. That moved the city forward and helped diversify the economy, Yablonsky said.
The region averaged about two life sciences start-ups per year in the early 2000s. Today, it is averaging more than 20 per year.
Local partners worked with employers to identify jobs in the pipeline, then coordinated with community colleges and trainers to build targeted curriculum to prepare the workforce for the demands, Yablonsky said.
Pittsburgh has become a tech hub, home to the regional offices of Google, Apple and Intel Corp.
“Every region has strengths,” Yablonsky said. “You need to have an honest, regional conversation about those strengths … and you need to make a commitment to build on those strengths.”
Targeted approach to grow
The Dayton region has adopted a similar approach to economic growth.
The county’s strategic plan concentrates on three targeted industries: aerospace, advanced manufacturing and logistics and distribution.
Montgomery County markets the area as a growing distribution and logistics hub, seeks businesses in this sector and has created daytonlogistics.com to educate people and companies about the local strength of this industry, said county Commissioner Debbie Lieberman.
The county distributes economic development funds based on priorities, and projects in these industries receive special consideration, she said.
The county has pumped money into workforce development and has partnered with Sinclair Community College to develop curriculum to create a feeder system for local companies, she said.
“We’ve really been focusing on sector strategy,” Lieberman said.
County officials spend time on outreach to make sure businesses have what they need and understand what resources are available, Lieberman said. The county plans to open a business center to serve local employers.
Additionally, like Pittsburgh’s colleges, Dayton’s higher-ed institutions are evolving and investing big money to meet the demands of a changing labor market and business environment.
Sinclair Community College is working to be a leader in commercial drone training.
The University of Dayton is heavily invested in research and developing tech solutions. The Wright State Research Institute has been awarded a contract to develop sensor technologies.
The water way
On a recent weekday, about a dozen kayakers paddled along the Allegheny River in downtown Pittsburgh, pausing to snap a cellphone photo of each other and the landscape.
A woman and her dog jogged along a path next to the river, while a cyclist cruised by, slowing down to avoid colliding with a group of children splashing around at the water’s edge.
Families tossed bread crumbs to ducks, and others stretched out on blankets to sunbathe.
The scenes play out countless times during the summer at Point State Park in Pittsburgh.
But it could be a glimpse into Dayton’s future.
The dangerous low dam in the Great Miami River will be removed, and two new whitewater structures will be constructed.
The hope is the banks at RiverScape Metro Park will bustle with people and activity.
In the past, Pittsburgh’s rivers were used primarily for transport related to commerce.
But abandoned industrial sites along the Steel City’s banks are being converted into green space and mixed-use developments.
Foundations and public entities have spent about $129 million on riverfront improvements since 1999, said Stephan Bontrager, a spokesman with Riverlife, a private-public partnership dedicated to improving the riverfront and its park system.
That investment has led to $4.1 billion in adjacent riverfront development, including sports stadiums, hotels, housing, office buildings, corporate headquarters, retail, recreational spaces, a convention center and casino, he said.
Riverlife works with public and private developers to ensure green space is developed, such as parks, fountains, fishing piers and kayak launch points, Bontrager said. The redesigned riverfront has connected public green spaces and has changed the city’s character.
“Riverfronts are now the front door to the city, rather than backdoor where industry dumps its pollution,” he said. “We are on the cusp of a huge explosion in residential real estate on the rivers.”
Property values near Pittsburgh’s riverfront districts have soared in the last 15 years. Hundreds of new residential units will come online in areas near the banks within the next year.
Investments in quality of place pay off, especially when they involve good planning and design, Bontrager said.
People increasingly want to live, work, dine and shop in the same compact, walkable areas, and water access also is a big selling point, especially for millennials and young professionals who prefer active lifestyles, officials said.
Many students and young professionals who visit Pittsburgh decide to stay there because they feel it has a lot to offer, and riverfront amenities are a significant part of the appeal, said Jeff Malik, a graduate assistant with the Rivers Institute at the University of Dayton who lived and worked in Pittsburgh for five years.
Individual riverfront projects in the city have led to waves of redevelopment, and activating the riverbanks in the Dayton region could spur similar types of adjacent investment, Malik said.
“The development of the recreational aspect can lead to some pretty creative commercial development as well,” he said.
A river runs through Dayton
Dayton’s Great Miami River corridor is an important part of the Greater Downtown Dayton Plan.
The goal is to make the riverfront a recreation destination that acts as a catalyst for economic development.
About $100 million already has been spent on riverfront recreation, which includes RiverScape Metro Park and the river run project that will remove the low dam, according to the Miami Conservancy District.
Economic development along the river corridor exceeded $234 million in recent years, the district said.
“Projects such as RiverScape River Run in and along our region’s waterways also provide a way for everyone in our community to enjoy the river, experience the outdoors and connect with nature – and have the type of active, healthy lifestyles increasingly in demand today,” said Carrie Scarff, Five Rivers MetroParks deputy director.
Developers are betting people will want to live, work and visit the riverfront.
The $45 million Water Street development will create 215 market-rate apartments, a parking garage, office space and other amenities at a site by the Great Miami River.
Like Pittsburgh, Dayton plans to rejuvenate downtown by converting old office buildings downtown into hip apartments and housing. The downtown populations of both cities are growing.
Dayton is using an asset-based strategy to redevelop its urban core, just as Pittsburgh leveraged its universities, health care providers and other institutions to formulate smart plans for growth, Mayor Whaley said.
Dayton-area hospitals and colleges are partnering with government and developers to remove blight and create compact, mixed-use districts that will remake local neighborhoods, she said.
“There are good lessons we can learn from Pittsburgh,” Whaley said. “They work with their universities and hospitals — eds and meds — and we do a lot of that same kind of work.”
But the Pittsburgh region has three times the population of the Dayton region. And the city has unique geography, is home to three professional sports teams and never emptied out its downtown as Dayton did.
Pittsburgh also has benefited from a powerful charitable and philanthropic community, rivaled by few cities, Rust Belt or otherwise.
The metro region boasts about $14.7 billion in foundation assets, according to the Foundation Center. Pittsburgh has the second-highest concentration of foundation assets in the nation, behind Seattle, Wash., according to the Allegheny Conference.
Foundations in the region gave about $793 million in 2013 to projects, groups, events, cultural venues and other improvements, the magazine said. Pittsburgh has a world-class symphony, a vibrant performing arts community and renowned museums and science center.
This region also benefits from philanthropy, but not on the same scale.
In 2013, foundations in the Dayton region had about $1.6 billion in assets and gave about $93 million in the community, according to the center.
Commissioner Lieberman said Dayton will never be exactly like Pittsburgh because the cities have many differences.
But she said Dayton is on the upswing and has the “tools in place” to make a Pittsburgh-like comeback, which hopefully will not take 30 years to materialize.
“Can we be as economically sound as Pittsburgh one day? Yeah,” Lieberman said. “Will we ever look like Pittsburgh? No.”
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