Superintendent leaves Dayton aviation park poised to grow

Dean Alexander, superintendent at the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Aviation Park, is retiring Friday, July 21. THOMAS GNAU/STAFF

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Dean Alexander, superintendent at the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Aviation Park, is retiring Friday, July 21. THOMAS GNAU/STAFF

Dean Alexander, superintendent at the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, is retiring today, and he leaves behind a national park poised to get bigger.

Tony Sculimbrene, executive director at the National Aviation Heritage Alliance, the national park’s Dayton-based non-profit partner, said the alliance hopes to gain control of the former Wright Airplane Factory — between U.S. 35 and Third Street near Home Avenue — possibly as soon as the next 30 days.

“We are very much engaged” on raising funds to acquire the former factory, Sculimbrene said Thursday.

The alliance is negotiating with Home Avenue Redevelopment, the private entity that owns the factory buildings and surrounding 54 acres of property.

Alexander said the National Park Service has the authority to acquire the complex.

“The plan is, once that’s secured, the federal government would go in and purchase the historic Wright Brothers buildings,” Alexander said.

As Alexander retires, Sculimbrene said he was a natural fit for the community when he was appointed in 2009.

“I think probably the greatest strength and the greatest contribution that Dean has made to the park has been to share his extensive knowledge of aviation that he had before he even came to this location,” Sculimbrene said.

Park leaders knew that Alexander had strong knowledge of aviation’s early days, and that fact was a “driver” for his selection, Sculimbrene said.

“He knows his history inside and out,” he said.

The Dayton park had 98,533 visitors last year, up from 73,588 the year before. In recent years, the Dayton park has benefited from David McCullough's 2015 book, The Wright Brothers, Alexander said.

“We got a huge boost from David McCullough’s book,” he said. “That book put a lot more focus on the Wrights in Dayton rather than the events at Kitty Hawk (N.C.). McCullough writes in a more accessible fashion.”

Dayton’s park was established in the 1990s, with barely any property or employees at first. By the late 1990s, park employees were staffing a recreation of the Wright bicycle shop. Alexander is also the superintendent at the Hopewell Culture National Historical Park in Chillicothe.

Sculimbrene agreed the long name of the Dayton park is “unwieldy.” And he noted there have been legislative efforts to change the name.

But those efforts haven’t gotten anywhere.

“That’s a difficult task to to do,” Sculimbrene said. “The park is meant to honor not just the Wright Brothers but poet Paul Laurence Dunbar as well.”

Dayton is more than just a famous pair of brothers, he said. Its history includes McCook Field, an early Army Air Corps site, whose centennial will be celebrated this October. A ceremony is planned for Oct. 5.

Alexander said area residents should be proud to have the park, which is anchored on West Third, around Williams Street, but also has visitors centers at Huffman Prairie, Carillon Historical Park, a Paul L. Dunbar memorial and the Hawthorn Hill mansion in Oakwood.

“If they bring their friends and families down, great,” Alexander said Thursday, the day before his retirement from the National Park Service. “The situation in this immediate neighborhood has improved markedly since the park was established.”

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