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Q&A: Dayton's Jim Leftwich on the region's emergence as a high-tech corridor

Jim Leftwich, President and Chief Executive Officer at the Dayton Dev. Coalition. Photos Ben French
Jim Leftwich, President and Chief Executive Officer at the Dayton Dev. Coalition. Photos Ben French

Site Selection picked the Dayton Region as one of the top economic development regions in the nation. What's your perspective on that?

I think you've got a region that has become very focused about what the opportunities are. In general, we focus on four technology platforms: Aerospace systems, information technology, human sciences and healthcare, and then advanced materials and advanced manufacturing. But the other key to this is pursuing opportunities related to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Wright-Patterson is the largest single site employer in the state -- over 26,000 employees. There's a research lab there that does $2 billion of research annually. Some of it's contracted out, but what we've got is a group of stakeholders than have all gotten focused around real opportunities that are linked to Wright-Patterson that are linked to those four technology platforms. And that can mean real growth for the Dayton region in the near term. And we've seen companies that have taken notice and are relocating and expanding in the Dayton region.

As you talk to folks around the country and to prospective new businesses, are there any myths about the Dayton region that have to be overcome?

When they think about Dayton they think about Detroit -- maybe because they both begin with a D. They view Dayton as a rundown community, low tech, blue collar. So what we do is try to get out there and communicate the high-wage, high-tech sectors that we have.

What kinds of things do you tell them?

We highlight the value of the technology and the research that is going on. We talk about our high-tech industries, the fact that we've got LexisNexis there, Teradata, Standard Register, Reynolds and Reynolds, the fact that we've got opportunities for research collaboration through universities like Wright State and the University of Dayton and the intellectual capital that's associated with those universities and the Air Force Research Laboratory.

You mentioned the initiatives that you're focusing on. Why did you pick those four?

We looked at areas that were our strengths. If you've got the strengths, it creates the opportunities. So we did some analysis, and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base played a part in all of those areas. If you look at the technology platforms that we're focused on, they're very closely aligned with the research directorates in the Air Force Research Laboratory. There's an advanced materials directorate for research, there's a flight dynamics and a sensors directorate, and a human sciences directorate -- so there's very close alignment in which the research can serve as an anchor for commercialization.

The Coalition was involved in organizing entities like the National Composite Center and others. You've been talking to the NASA Glenn folks about doing some more work with Wright-Patt. What's your approach to partnerships?

The key to success is partnering and brining around the table a coalition of the willing. And so we do that. We have commercialization partners around the region, university partners. We also recognize the value of Wright-Patterson not only to the Dayton region, but to the rest of the state and there are opportunities for working with NASA Glenn. So what we really want to do is reach out and partner as much as we can. And we're doing that right now with the water campaign, where we working more actively with organizations in the Cincinnati region and in the northern Kentucky area. At the end, if we're all working together and collaborating, we're all going to be better off.

You mentioned the water campaign. How's that going?

It's going well. The H2Open campaign was launched to recognize the value of the water resources we have in the Dayton region -- one of the largest fresh water aquifers with one of the fastest replenishment rates. The campaign has four aspects to it. One is around economic development -- how we target those businesses that are high-volume users of water but are located in very arid areas of the country. How do we go out to those companies and try to bring them in? Another area of focus is on education -- creating the workforce to support water-based industry. Another is around preserving the quality of the water that we have today. And the fourth area is around commercializing technology -- how do you leverage companies that are developing water technologies, commercialize their technology and continue to build out on the technology side of the system?

Are you finding more companies in Dayton are doing that?

Once we set up the water roundtable, we discovered there were a lot of companies that are doing water-related work. Central State University has a good water program that was unknown to us before. A lot of companies that leverage and use a lot of water develop the technologies, so there are a lot of companies around that are all part of this effort. But let me just fill in some blanks. Around those four technology platforms there are two major thrusts that we're working on. One is around this water campaign and leveraging those resources, but the other is around becoming the national center for unmanned aerial vehicles. If you look at the intersection of our four technology clusters, the research, development and production all come together in this UAV industry. It's an emerging industry with real growth opportunities. So around those four technologies, Dayton is very well poised to become a national center. If companies are looking for where they need to be to manufacture the UAVs or assemble them, or to be a supplier and provide component parts, the message from our standpoint is the place to be is the Dayton region. And we're getting a lot of traction around that.

The Coalition has been recognized as one of the top economic development organizations in the country. What are you doing that maybe others aren't?

I tell people that that recognition is not a recognition of the Coalition as much as it is recognition of the collaborative nature of the Dayton region. When people come together and sit around a table and make decisions and cooperate and seek leverage then you're going to see strong results.

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