Perception is the Problem

 Perception is the Problem

Beth Langefels In the 1970s the west side of Dayton was thriving. Factories like General Motors, McCalls, Dayton Press and General Tire and companies like NCR were booming. Jobs were plentiful and those that were in Dayton at the time remember that many of the top funk music songs sweeping the nation were given first play right here.

But years of desegregation struggles in the schools and companies and factories shuttering dealt a staggering blow to the area. In the last half of the 20th century the area was economically diverse, with predominantly African American middle-class neighborhoods. Challenges included concentrations of poverty and people left unemployed after manufacturing jobs left and never returned.

Today, the tide is changing somewhat. In 2013, leadership of the West Dayton Development Trust Fund board and staff launched a planning process to address the struggles and challenges in west Dayton. The planning process revealed four common needs and themes for the area—connectivity and reunification; corridors like McLin Parkway and the West Third Street Heritage Center; open space like the pre-existing MetroPark system with its trails and rivers and enhancing public spaces by improving pedestrian access and creating more green space.

Creating a thriving west side once more is challenging, though Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley says the future is bright.

“I think right now we are seeing more interest in investment in west Dayton than we have in decades,” Whaley says. “Greater Dayton Premier Management is creating choice neighborhoods and there are companies adding manufacturing jobs.”

Working closely with the University of Dayton, Montgomery County, the Miami Valley Regional Planning Commission and other major partners, the city received a $1.5 million HUD Choice Planning and Action Grant about two years ago. The grant money is being used to revitalize neighborhoods and improve existing public housing.

“We also see interest in the old Wright Factory site,” Whaley says. “And the city bought the former NIBCO Foundry site (on McCall street). The Dayton Library is making progress on the new west branch.”

But Whaley says that Dayton is still too segregated and unequal, which creates ambivalence among developers to invest in the west side.

Derrick Foward, the president of the local NAACP chapter, says that groups need to find ways to emphasize the city’s assets and that using the “art of negotiation” with potential investors and developers is key.

“Negotiation is the No. 1 influencer that can help drive economic sustainability in any community,” Foward says. “That, coupled with believing in the community in which you live.”

Foward sites examples like Austin Landing and Miller Lane, both recently developed into mixed use properties that include retail, hotels, restaurants and even residential properties.

“Miller Lane was nothing but bushes and shrubbery along (Interstate) 75,” Foward says. “Austin Landing was woods, debris and undeveloped land, also along I-75. When I think about developers and city leadership working together to come up with a strategic plan to develop those areas I believe the same thing could be done in west Dayton.”

Foward also has high hopes for the area, citing the new Gem City Market, a full-service grocery store and food co-op slated to open next year in the Salem Avenue corridor. But he also says that developers are interested in making a profit and that’s the bottom line.

“In the art of negotiation you can’t allow contractors to get out of developing somewhere just because it’s classified as ‘low income,’” Foward says. “You have to have people who are willing to come in and spend but you also need to show them where the money is.”

Foward says the NAACP has been in partnership with some major companies, including Kroger, to renovate and keep their stores open in both the west and northwest areas of Dayton.

“I give Kroger kudos for putting capital improvements into the store on Siebenthaler six years ago,” Foward says. “Though it did come at the cost of closing the store on Needmore Road.”

The Salem Avenue Peace Corridor project is a grassroots community organization lead by a group of concerned citizens and business people who have a goal to improve their communities by stimulating investment. Jule Rastikis, president and broker at ManCo Property services, is president of the group.

“Development has been shy because of perception,” Rastikis says. “The whole mentality if you cross the river is it’s not safe. I’ve been dealing with this for so many years and get tired of hearing it. But it’s still what everyone believes.”

Though Rastikis’ focus is mostly on the northwest corridor, he says the potential on the west side of the river is “phenomenal.”

“I’ve owned my business for 35 years on Salem Avenue and we always knew it was a great place,” he says.

In 2015, the Peace Corridor group decided to quantify what they knew to be true about their neighborhood by partnering with Wright State University on an in-depth study of their area that resulted in the Peace Corridor Value Proposition. The study showed that limited curb appeal is hindering development and retail opportunities in adjacent areas keeping other businesses from opening in the neighborhoods.

“If you go to the corner of Salem and Grand and you draw a 3-mile radius from the point you see the retail gap,” Rastikis says. “This means money spent outside of our area and it amounts to nearly $300 million each year.”

As for the perception of the areas being unsafe, Rastikis says he had one attempted break in of his business in 35 years.

“The perception is the problem certainly,” he says. “This is what really affects the area and I don’t know how it got started. This is an urban environment and we don’t know what people expect. But we are working hard to overcome this and it’s a long, hard process.”

For example, one neighborhood along the Salem Avenue corridor has the highest per capital income in the city and Rastikis says no one knows this.

“I think the future is bright for our city,” Rastikis says. “The focus is being put downtown because the core has to be strong and I get that. But if we begin servicing the people who live in our communities again; the ones who have been neglected for so long, then everyone will feel better about expanding and growing here.”

For more information about the Salem Avenue Peace Corridor visit peacecorridor.com