#Dayton, What's Your Identity & Future?

Dayton is a member of the midwest. As Aaron Renn (Senior Fellow at The Manhattan Institute, @urbanophile, www.urbanophile.com) writes, the midwest is already great, but few people know how great it is.

There’s a fascinating discussion right now in Minneapolis-St. Paul about it rebranding itself out of the midwest, by affirming itself “The Capital of the North.”

While Dayton isn’t getting out of the midwest, I do think the branding discussion is worth a read, and even more thought as we think about Dayton’s future.

What is the identity of Dayton? As I read the Greater Dayton Downtown Plan Update, developing a marketing strategy is still in the plans, so this discussion will definitely be coming up.

The “Capital of the North” article references Denver as a model. Their logo, their slogan, and even their tourism logo among other things.

I think most Daytonians know our identity, at least pertaining to our roots: aerospace & innovation.

What about a logo or a slogan? Does the city of Dayton even have a logo? I’m not talking about our seal, or the Dayton patented logo the city uses to highlight “Dayton Originals” (for the record, I’m a fan of the campaign, in context).

What about a slogan? Dayton is “The Birthplace of Aviation” right? I guess that’s okay, it’s Ohio’s also, but what does that say about Dayton now? Today?

We need to be attracting new people who have 0 preconceptions about Dayton. People with new ideas, and different experiences.

What does the “Birthplace of Aviation” say to them? Our brand should should most definitely be tied to our roots, but it undoubtedly has to about where those roots are taking us. The state of North Carolina uses something almost exactly the same, but says so much more in my opinion.

“First in Flight,” is tied to the same Wright Brothers, but of course the first recorded flight occurred in Kittyhawk, NC.

From my standpoint, “First in Flight” screams innovation and says “We’re ahead of the times.” Origin is not that compelling unless it’s a hometown story.

If you asked the average person where Bill Gates or Steve Jobs were born, would they know? Probably not, but even those who casually watch the news know where patents are being awarded everyday, Silicon Valley.

Maybe I’m splitting hairs here, but to quote Walter Russell Mead's Beyond Blue series, “these posts aren’t intended as sacred writ; they reflect questions I am asking and are intended to start conversation and debate, not to end it.”

A city doesn’t need branding to thrive. Geographic, and economic advantages can easily override bad branding. Dayton doesn’t really have that luxury.

At a glance most people think the midwest is dull, too cold, or some other lazy response. That’s why it’s important for cities like Dayton to at least look to control the narrative.

Middle Sized Midwest Cities

Madison, Wisconsin is an amazing city, even smaller than ours. Let’s talk about its advantages.

Madison is both a college town, and a state capital. So Dayton definitely can’t compete on the government side of things, but Dayton is a college town, right?

If you combine the enrollment of Dayton, Wright State & Sinclair it’s about even, but as a Sinclair alumna, we definitely can’t count all of that Sinclair number, and it accounts for over half of the estimate.

It’s not just about enrollment. 40k students downtown is big, but a faculty Wisconsin's size gives downtown a huge boost too. Dayton’s three main college campus staffs equal about 8,600 employees spread over two counties. Wisconsin-Madison? Almost 22,000, downtown.

I don’t think many people would argue Sinclair students are taking their lunches and engaging in what downtown Dayton has to offer. Hopefully the housing being built changes that to some extent.

How about geographically? Madison’s located on a series of lakes, and has much of the urban infrastructure Dayton is working towards.

But this isn’t a post on Madison. This is about Dayton.

My point is Dayton doesn’t have a lot of the advantages the cities our size that are thriving have.

We’re in the process of working with what we do have; the metroparks have done a great job connecting the bike paths to our natural beauty in Greene county, and soon with the Great Miami through the River Run project. We’re a bike friendly city, with the bike share opening soon. Riverscape has transformed into a great downtown gathering place.

Though as Renn writes, these basic infrastructure upgrades are just upping the “urban ante” today.

Bike-shares are a really cool idea and I’m pumped to have one, but by the time Dayton’s launches, almost 60 U.S. cities will have one. By Nielsen’s DMAs (Designated Market Area), Dayton is the 64th largest DMA in the U.S., basically we’re on par. These aren’t moves setting us apart, these are things we’re doing to keep up.

Truly Investing in Dayton’s Brand

We are the birthplace of aviation. We’re the home of the electric cash register, the pull tab and pop top can, the electric starter, the first guided missile among others. As we mentioned above, we’re well rooted in aviation and innovation.

What is our current makeup? Our private sector innovation seems to have dried up as our workforce became manufacturing. Some quick research through the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office tells me since 1976 Dayton inventors have the 3rd most patents in Ohio, but since 1990 we’ve slipped to fifth.

While it’s hard to find apples to apples lists of science and tech job counts, venture capital investments, another thing measured in innovation indexes are a little easier to find. Venture capital investments happened in 160 cities in 2014, and over 100 cities in 2012, Dayton had zero of those.

Urban theorist Richard Florida posits the economy is now powered by the creative class, and they want places that hold the three t’s: talent, technology, and tolerance. Dayton may not have a high number of private sector creative or tech jobs, but they have seen positive press on LGBT efforts.

Dayton has also become an immigrant friendly city with national recognition.

Over the last week I’ve poured through the data. Books, research papers presentations. There’s numerous lists that talk about how affordable Dayton is. That is all well and good to some extent. They also point out our lack of upward mobility.

There is one list we continually rank on, that I’ll be honest, at least this year I didn’t see any mention of by our Dayton-centric sites, even though Forbes picked it up.

So what is one thing that stands out?

Dayton is continually listed as one of the best cities for engineers.

Would you think we have as many engineers per capita as Houston (arguably one of the hottest towns in America)?

To be fair, many of you might. We have the largest air force base in the country, and while much of the above discussion on innovation focused on the private sector, we still have a fair amount of contractors who work with the base (my brother being one).

Just last month we ranked 10th out of 350 metros based on a NerdWallet study indexing the size of the engineering industry, annual mean salary for engineers, and median gross rent.

It just amazes me that I don’t hear this more.

So...we were #10 this year by Nerdwallet’s index.

In 2013, Forbes listed us at #4 in the country for engineers.

Last year, a different NerdWallet index named Dayton the #10 place for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) graduates based on income levels and the size of the STEM industry (I would guess mostly held up by yes, engineering, but also health care as Dayton is a health care hub).

So maybe we answered our the question of our identity when It was asked at the very beginning. The question that still lingers in the brand discussion is how other people see us.

Ohio’s own job creation task force, Jobs-Ohio’s Aerospace & Aviation snapshot has two pages. Page one leads with all of the private aviation companies. It actually doesn’t even mention Dayton until page two when you see it on a map. This despite we literally operate as “Ohio’s Aerospace Hub,” the one remaining hub formed by former Governor Ted Strickland.

For a city built on innovation, the sad reality is if it’s not tied to government, or a university, we likely have very little of it. I’m not sure we have what businesses want, but we have modern, green space for it?

Tech Town is an awesome area, and a sight to see, but there wouldn’t be so much discussion of “is it full, or isn’t it” if there weren’t some problems.

If they’re as strict as they claim about who they let occupy it, maybe that’s telling of a bigger problem, maybe Dayton’s not offering what it takes to attract the people we think should fit it.

What about Fiber-Optics? This was originally mentioned in the Greater Dayton Downtown Plan, but probably referenced FNNP (Fiber-to-the-node), an older technology, that would be supported with Dayton’s existing copper wiring (It’s not in the 2015-2020 update, a twitter inquiry to the DDP said it's not in any immediate plans).

A different fiber optics set-up, FTTP or (fiber-to-the-premises), is a more much expensive undertaking, but are we seriously talking about attracting talent, start-ups, and innovation? If we’re just saying it because it’s our heritage it’s fine to ignore. But if we’re REALLY trying? It’s hard to not consider Gigabit internet. Not privy to the jargon?

The FCC recently just defined 25 mbps to be “broadband,” (Time-Warner’s standard internet in Dayton is 15 mbps). For an apples to apples comparison with FTTP we’re talking 1000 mbps (yes, 40x faster than the FCC definition).

At least 16 cities already in process with this service. It isn’t upping the ante with things we should've already done with infrastructure for bikes and pedestrians, this is building a foundation for future INFOstructure. This is the a framework for innovation. If we want the creative class, this is something we can’t ignore.

||EDIT: As I’ve already written most of this, Dayton-based Extra Mile Fiber announced today (3-19) they will be bringing gigabit internet to the new Water Street development, and openly courting private-public partnerships to expand the offering.||

The good news is downtown is relatively small, (we’re talking no more than 3 square miles) and though I haven’t seen any recent numbers, we’ve had some of the highest office vacancy in the country. Let’s start there.

We NOW have a Dayton based provider seemingly created with this in mind. Let’s reward them. The updated Greater Dayton Downtown Plan clearly states “The most effective way to generate new jobs and investment is by retaining and growing the businesses already in a community.”

If we want to make Dayton the city we claim to, we have to be committed to big ideasand tough decisions in order to foster necesarry public-private partnerships.

I know very little about Extra Mile Fiber outside of a short email exchange with CEO Leigh Sandy, but I know this; He loves this city and wants to be part of its ascent. Extra Mile Fiber showed their commitment today (3-19), and I couldn’t be more excited to see where it takes us.

Epilogue

When I started this post, it started out purely as a branding discussion. After literally days of research, Dayton like many post-industrial midwest cities, is fighting to carve its name out in the private sector. Unfortunately, this is a lot more dependent upon government and policy, than a simple branding discussion.

Please use this post as a discussion tool. If you don’t know me, know I love Dayton and only want to see it succeed. If we’re not asking the tough questions, our expectations aren’t high enough. It’s much easier to point out the problems, but my hope is we can discuss the problems so maybe we can actually understand them.

To quote one of our great inventors, Charles F. Kettering, “A problem well stated, is a problem half solved.”