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history of innovation: dayton mounts a comeback based on young professionals

Dayton, Ohio. Photos Submitted
Dayton, Ohio. Photos Submitted
Scott Murphy is a 33-year old mechanical engineer living the dream. He likes his job and lives in a city he describes as “cultivating diversity, attracting more employers and building stronger neighborhoods.” No, he’s not talking about Chicago or New York City – not even Cleveland, Columbus or Cincinnati. Murphy is a proud and thriving resident of Dayton.
Murphy, a Columbus native, attended a Catholic high school and the University of Dayton. After graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering, Murphy didn’t see himself sticking around. That is, until an opportunity presented itself.
“I ended up staying after graduation because of my internship at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base,” says Murphy, who is still employed by Wright-Patterson as a mechanical engineer. “I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have stayed in Dayton if not for this opportunity made possible through the initial internship.”
Because Murphy did stay, the Gem City grew on him. Over time, the city’s cultural assets, such as its fabulous art museum, revealed themselves. Bars and restaurants in Dayton’s Oregon District, walking distance from downtown, have a feel that Murphy describes as “uniquely Dayton.” Hip and edgy – not posh.
“It's got a good mix of restaurants, bars, shops, and galleries,” he explains, adding his excitement over Dayton’s blossoming arts scene. “In general, I'm much more likely to go to local places versus the chains at the malls. Practically every city in America has the chains.”
Of course, Murphy is not alone in his preference for unique urban communities. The things that Murphy brags about in the Oregon District are what many of today’s young professionals use to describe a cool neighborhood. Turns out, Dayton is cool. It’s a city with entertainment, fun bars and a solid cycling community for the physically active. In 2010, Dayton was recognized by the League of American Bicyclists as a bronze-level bicycle community. “Bicycling in Dayton is one of my favorite weekend activities from spring to fall.”
Unfortunately, Murphy is not the dominant trend. You don’t need a D.C. think-tank to figure out that Dayton doesn’t have a flattering national reputation. Simply put, college graduates and young professionals alike don’t typically think Dayton is a cool place to live compared to cities like San Francisco or Seattle. In fact, Dayton struggles to keep its own, as highlighted in a recent New York Times article that cites a disturbing trend currently plaguing the Dayton region.
Dayton lost about 1 percent of its college-educated 25- to 34-year-olds between 2000 and 2009 at a time when that group grew by 13 percent nationally, according to Joe Cortright, senior policy adviser for CEOs for Cities, who is cited in the article. Meanwhile, in Columbus, that same group grew by 25 percent.
This problem, in large part, is a result of the region’s past focus on heavy manufacturing throughout the 20th century, explains Jeff Hoagland, President and CEO of the Dayton Development Coalition, whose mission is to support job creation through regional economic development and advocacy. “We did not focus on higher degree education, because the GM’s and the Delphi’s were paying great salaries that did not require higher education.”
In what has become a familiar story, manufacturing plants closed as the new economy trudged toward Dayton, leaving thousands jobless. Many saw the University of Dayton and Wright State University as beacons of hope, institutions filled with young, innovative minds that might save the struggling city.
Yet employment opportunities for young college grads weren't readily available, and there were few organized efforts to provide graduates with incentives to stick around and fall in love with Dayton. So how does a city with an image problem convince graduates and young professionals to plant roots and discover it’s cool? Scott Murphy’s story provides one possible solution – internships.
Dr. Thomas Lasley, professor at the University of Dayton and Executive Director of Learn To Earn Dayton, is a strong believer in providing internships to college students and graduates, just like what Murphy received from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. “I don’t think we’ve got enough young people who are doing internships, so they can actually see the assets that are here,” explains Lasley. The goal of Learn to Earn Dayton is to increase the level of college attainment so that 60% of Dayton's 25-64 year olds hold a post-secondary degree by 2025.
Lasley says that internships help career-minded individuals to see that advancement is easier in a smaller city. Dayton's low cost of living also makes the city accessible for young people. As professionals and businesses come back, so do neighborhoods, like McPherson Town on the city’s north side, which Murphy describes as “a beautiful part of the city with a terrific sense of community.”
Simply put, Murphy would never have known these opportunities or cool neighborhoods existed in Dayton if not for his internship. But Murphy is just one person. And his employer, Wright-Patt, a renowned institution with over 27,000 employees on site and another 30,000 working indirectly, has never had a problem retaining young talent. To succeed, Dayton needs more than one employer stepping up and the city needs to do its part as well.
It’s been almost four years since GM closed their Dayton plant, laying off thousands of workers. Has the wakeup call set in? Is the city catching on? Lasley believes so.
“The city is very actively trying to make a new future for itself," says Lasley. “I think that its complacency in the past was parallel to what a lot of cities were experiencing – a sense of self-satisfaction that things were OK as they were and that proactive efforts were not necessary or essential. The last decade or two have taught Dayton and other cities that in order to create and keep good jobs, it is imperative to think innovatively about developing essential intellectual capital."

He concludes, "Dayton now gets it, and I am convinced that the region's collective will to create positive change will result in positive change.”
Justin Bayer of Welcome To College, a web tool that helps high school students to find the right college, provides a glimpse into the future the city is trying to make for itself. Bayer, who started his company in September 2010, believes that Dayton now has the right pitch to convince former residents and young entrepreneurs to explore the possibility of creating a startup in the city.
“Dayton is a place that is historically one of the most innovative cities in America, dating back to what the Wright brothers did,” he explains, adding that the city has a supportive network for young entrepreneurs that is unmatched by most cities in the country. “I think Dayton is a hidden gem for entrepreneurs.”
Murphy agrees and provides a pitch for young professionals.
“I would tell them that Dayton has heart. Young professionals in Dayton are passionate about helping their city. You could move to a big city and be another face in the crowd or you can come to Dayton and have an impact. It's an exciting time to be living here. We have momentum.”

All photos submitted.
Photos 1-2: Dayton, OH
Photo 3: Scott Murphy
Photo 4: Hoagland
Photo 5: Thomas Lasley
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