The Renaissance of the Oregon District
By Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin
Photo: A view of the Oregon District businesses at night along Fifth Street; photo credit: Andrew Thompson
Amongst the 20,000 residents, 40,000 students, 42,000 employees and 7 million visitors in the Greater Downtown Dayton area, you want to find the one seat that was meant just for you. Whether you’re looking for a delectable meal, a cold drink, an intimate conversation or live music, you’ll find your spot in Dayton’s Historic Oregon Arts District. Experiencing a recent rise in both its business and residential community, the Oregon District has become the foothold from which Dayton will launch itself into a new era of hope and prosperity.
Action of this magnitude needs leaders, and Dr. Michael Ervin, co-chair of both the Downtown Dayton Partnership and the Greater Downtown Dayton Plan, is one of those leaders. From his renovated home in the building that once housed the Southern Belle in the Oregon District, Ervin can see all of the potential the Oregon District has to offer rolled out before him.
“I looked around up there and I thought, you know, we’ve got to do something downtown to get things rolling again, and I said the Oregon District is the only place that there is critical mass enough,” said Ervin. “So, I said let’s take this one little street and try and concentrate our efforts here, as opposed to just doing stuff all over town and a little here and a little there. I realized if we try to start an arts district down here we could use that to help revitalize the area.”
Ervin felt so strongly about the potential of the Oregon District that he invested a significant amount of his own money for the efforts. “I used some of that money to develop the website for the Oregon District,” said Ervin. “We started doing promotional activities. We started First Friday Art Hops. All of a sudden, everything started flourishing.”
When entrepreneurs Bob and Lisa Mendenhall expressed interest in opening a bar in the Oregon District, Ervin saw the opportunity to bring in people with an interest in cultivating Dayton’s potential and rally the phoenix out of the ashes.
“I walked Bob and Lisa all around the Oregon District, and of course with Bob you have to be very descriptive,” said Ervin. “Back then it was the days where there were a lot of empty stores and we had this vision that we were going to change all of this. And it worked.”
The Mendenhall family re-invests in the Oregon District with Lily’s Bistro
Four years ago, Bob and Lisa Mendenhall bought up the old Nite Owl space on Fifth Street and opened Blind Bob’s: An American Tavern with their son, Nate. Notwithstanding the recession, or perhaps because of it, Blind Bob’s has become a Dayton success story with their “good food, good beer, great parties” approach to running a bar. By developing their venue to be more conducive to live music, they’ve augmented the local music scene and have played host to a constant rotation of local, national and international shows ever since.
When the space across the street from Blind Bob’s became available, Bob and Lisa jumped at the opportunity to reinvest with a new business, this time with their daughter, Emily. Lily’s Bistro, in the building formerly occupied by Boulevard Haus, will boast seasonal fare, artisanal cocktails and multiple shaded, verdant patios. There’s some work to be done first, though.
“Nate infamously said about Blind Bob’s, ‘Just a little elbow grease and some paint!’ And Lily’s is more of that,” said Emily.
“At least we didn’t have to gut it,” added Lisa, reflecting on the massive undertaking they went through to get Blind Bob’s ready to open.
The Mendenhall’s recruited Mariah Gahagan as their executive chef after meeting her at a benefit held at Blind Bob’s last summer to benefit the staff of the former Sidebar where Mariah had been a chef.
“When Lisa and I interviewed Mariah, it was just a natural fit,” said Emily.
“It just seemed really right,” said Gahagan. “We’re all on the same page. We want to use a lot of local products. Whenever I write a menu, it’s, ‘What do I want to eat? What am I excited about right now?’ Everything that we’re offering will be memorable. It’s very accessible to everyone, but maybe a little different than what you can get elsewhere in the area.”
“It’s fresh, fun, seasonal,” said Emily. “We’re going to do the menu four times a year and change out the beer and the wine and the cocktails to reflect the seasons as well. There’s my wine list, which has been a serious labor of love. I love so many of these big, red wines, but in summer I really want to feature these fun different white and rosé wines. Drinking rosé on the patio, it’s so delicious outside. I’m balancing the stuff that people know and expect with some new things and I that’s the same with the menu. It’s playful.”
They’ve picked a lively place to play. Lily’s will be sharing their corner of Fifth Street with one of the Oregon District’s most time-revered establishments, Oregon Express, along with a fellow newcomer, Salar.
“I think everyone realizes that just bringing more people down here is good for everyone,” said Gahagan. “We’re all very different businesses.”
“We never would have done anything somewhere else,” said Emily. “We like the Oregon District. Everyone has been so helpful and so supportive. We eat at Roost and talk to Dana and Beth. I ask Rob from Thai 9 questions every day. Amy at Jay’s. Everyone is super helpful.”
“It was like that when we did Blind Bob’s, too,” added Lisa.
“It really is becoming our community,” said Emily. “Lisa and Bob were struck by the Oregon District when we moved to Ohio in ’89. Lisa always thought, ‘Oh, I’d love to live here, but I probably never will.’ Now you live here, you have two businesses, you’re such a part of this community. It makes sense to expand more in the community you’re already a part of.”
“We chose to come back to Dayton. We like it!” said Bob.
The Oregon District builds steam and solidifies its reputation as a destination
“Dayton is a tight-knit community — a community that embraces art, small businesses and the community resources,” said Jesy Anderson, co-owner of Sew Dayton. “The city is growing and life has been sprouting up everywhere.”
“You can feel the heart of Dayton when you come to the Oregon District,” said Estevan Loya, owner of Eclectic Essentials. “Here, we’re family-owned businesses, we’re local entrepreneurs. The Oregon District is people from Dayton who are trying to make their dollars work here in the local community.”
“With the opening of three new restaurants and a brewery, we hope to see the Oregon District become much more of a vibrant destination in the region,” said Harry Trubounis, proprietor of the soon-to-open Salar Restaurant and Lounge.
“We hope to contribute by bringing the rich heritage of brewing back to Dayton after more than 60 years without a brewery,” said Shane Juhl, Brewmaster and General Manager of Toxic Brew Company. “By establishing a local craft brewery, we will add to the other great destination spots in the Oregon District. We have received great support from most of the businesses and residents of the Oregon District, from encouraging words to letters of support and even tidbits of business advice and knowledge of the Oregon District.”
“We are new to the Oregon District,” said Jim Collins, owner of Gem City Tattoo Club. “Quite a few folks stopped in and welcomed us.”
“The community is full of independents who really invest both their time and money into the city,” said Drew Trick, owner of Lucky’s Taproom and Eatery. “It is not only a matter of making a living, but bettering the services and options available in Dayton.”
“I thought I was going to ride bikes and work in a bike shop,” said Alex Staiger, who took over Omega Music together with his brother, Greg, after their father passed away in 2010. “But I wanted to help out and help my dad succeed at the store.”
“We moved to Dayton from Boston almost five years ago,” said Amelia O’Dowd, co-owner with Brian Eastman of BRIM hat shop. “In Boston, we could never have afforded to buy a house, buy a commercial building or open a business — let alone all three. This city is very affordable. It’s a real crossroads for music and culture, which makes for a lot of diversity in a small, manageable city. There are a lot of things that Dayton doesn’t have right now, but much of what we don’t have indicates an appetite. I tell people all the time that Dayton is for dreamers. If you have a big idea, if there is something you want that another city has, if you see a void, these are signs of things we need. The cost is low; this is a city where you can afford to chase down your dreams. That doesn’t mean it will be easy. It will be hard work, but more often than not if you want it, chances are there is probably an appetite for it in Dayton and if you get out there and do it, the community will reward you.”
“In a creative, funky way, we’re figuring out commerce and how it comes alive,” said Ervin.
“We’re celebrating 30 years in September,” said Joe Bavarro, owner of Oregon Express Bar and Restaurant. “We were the young guys on the block. Now we’re the old guys on the block. One of the reasons we’re still down here is the people who come in. We have great customers. They’re like family.”
“Various Bonnett family members have lived in the Oregon District continuously since the ‘40s, so we’re part of both the business and residential communities,” said Kevin Bonnett, owner of Bonnett’s Book Store. “We do what neighbors do – keep an eye out for trouble, shop local, ask for a ride to the grocery when the car is broken down. We always try to support the Oregon District as a whole. I think everyone else here does the same.”
“When we finally found this house in the Oregon District, it was the first house that immediately felt like home to me,” said Shannon Kallmeyer, Fairborn High School teacher, mother of two and recent transplant to the Oregon District from the suburbs. “In two days of being moved, we had several neighbors here introduce themselves and welcome us to the neighborhood … The point of the decision relies on neighbors, people willing to take care of their homes, watch out for yours, keep an eye out for your kids when driving down the street, in addition to accessible places to eat, delicious ones at that.”
“I think something that really speaks highly is that you have one of the best restaurants in the whole region, Meadowlark, down on Far Hills, they really want to come downtown,” said Ervin.
“We chose the Oregon District because there’s a lot going on, a lot of energy, and we want to be a part of it,” said Chef Elizabeth Wiley, owner of Meadowlark Restaurant and proprietor of the soon-to-come Wheat Penny Oven and Bar. “I can’t imagine having Wheat Penny in any other area of the Miami Valley.”
“People are seeing downtown more as a destination,” said Chef Liz Valenti, Wiley’s collaborator at both Meadowlark and Wheat Penny. “You can park, walk, eat, catch a movie. It’s all right here.”
“I feel like I’m in these pockets of a big city,” said Emily. “It reminds me of other cities I’ve lived in, those pockets you can find in Chicago like Wicker Park or Logan Square and now Magazine Street in New Orleans. You have the antique shops and the art galleries and the taverns and the fine dining and the mid-range restaurants and all the vintage shops. You can make a day of it and go to all these different places. See a rock show at Blind Bob’s, bluegrass at Trolley. And it’s not just one area. All of these places downtown are really interconnected. You can go to a Dragons game and you can go to the Victoria Theatre and you can go to the Oregon District. You don’t just go to this one thing and then get in your car and go home. You can stop by someplace for desert and then go see some music and really make a night of it.”
Augmenting out from the Oregon District, Dayton experiences a rejuvenation in business, residential and recreation efforts
Ervin has been involved with the progress of Dayton for some time.
“When I was co-chair of the Downtown Dayton Partnership before, 15 years ago, we did three major projects,” said Ervin. “We did the Schuster Center, recruited the Dragons and built their stadium, and we built RiverScape. It was a team effort by a lot of people. It was a lot of people working together. We weren’t as advanced along as we are today with truly sort of reviving downtown.”
Even as Dayton lay seemingly dormant, organizations were still hard at work to ensure that the city would rise again.
“I found that everyone, from then-engineers to the planners and all that, had actually done a really good job for a very long time at keeping our infrastructure up, our roads, our bridges and everything,” said Ervin. “They’ve been very good about getting federal transportation money and other things so that the infrastructure around Dayton is in really good shape.”
To jumpstart Dayton’s heart and ultimately revive the local economy, the Downtown Dayton Partnership, co-chaired again by Ervin, developed The Greater Downtown Dayton Plan, a “wide-reaching and multi-pronged economic development initiative.”
“When we put this together, we said ‘look, this has to be different. This has to be action-oriented. There has to be financial implications,’” said Ervin. “If you can’t afford it, don’t put it in the plan. As a community, the business community and the city and all of this together, have worked on this plan now for about three years, and it’s really working. Since we started on this plan, we’ve invested over half a billion dollars in downtown. And you’re seeing companies move downtown from the outskirts.”
Included in this initiative are the Patterson Boulevard Canal Parkway Project to connect the riverfront and the Oregon District; the Renaissance Gateway Plan, creating a safer, more attractive gateway north of Downtown; the RiverScape River Run Project, improving river accessibility and safety; Find It Downtown Mobile, an app for locating downtown amenities like parking, dining and shopping; and business-builders like Site Seeker and Activated Spaces. All of this requires money, which has taken some looking for over the past few years.
“Some of the big companies that used to contribute aren’t here anymore, so it’s a little tougher,” said Ervin. “But I’m of the opinion that in the long run, we’re developing better leadership. It’s a lot of young people, and it’s a mixture of different people, and I think it could build community better. You get more buy-in, you get people involved.”
With a strengthened and enlivened community, Dayton must look at its role in the bigger picture.
“How can Ohio compete in this world economy? Because you’re not competing against Kentucky or Florida anymore, it’s Singapore and Shanghai,” said Ervin. “One of the conclusions I’ve come to is that we’ve got to have stronger regions in the state, because you compete on a regional level. You don’t compete by Kettering or City of Dayton. The economic unit is really a regional thing. For any region to be strong, it’s got to have a cool, vibrant, thriving downtown where the intellectual capital of the future want to live, where they want to recreate and have fun and work. This affects you whether you live in Centerville or Tipp City. As a region, you know that to recruit people to work at your company in Centerville, you got to have a really cool downtown because this intellectual capital is going to go there. There has been a 180-degree change in the way companies pick where they want to locate their companies. It used to be that they’d sort of negotiate deals with cities and they tell their 400 employees or 4,000 employees we’re moving, and they expect them to move. Now the companies are saying, ‘Where does this young intellectual capital that we want to recruit to work for us, where do they want to be?’ And that’s where they’re going to go.”
Downtown Dayton has the opportunity to draw in this young intellectual capital. Now is the time for renaissance.
Looking to the future
Walt Disney once said, “We keep moving forward, opening new doors and doing new things, because we’re curious and curiosity keeps leading us down new paths.” Dayton must keep moving forward and achieve the potential that lies in all of its assets.
“When you actually start accomplishing things, people start to believe in themselves again,” said Ervin. “I’ve always said that the biggest accomplishment that we need to have is for people to believe in themselves again, and I think we’ve done that.”
Goals as noble as Dayton’s can be reached by the efforts of something as humble as a family. “The Mendenhall’s take a chance at life and go do something good,” said Ervin. “It’s a bunch of people that want to help and as a result they’re all becoming a part of history, a great history. People are going to look back to this and go, ‘Wow, there were some cool things happening back then.’”
“To me, the Oregon District really is a jewel that we need to continue to polish and shine,” said Bob.
We must sustain this. We must continue this trend of re-investment in our community and nurture the flourishing culture that Dayton is ripe with. The passion is in place. The plans are in action.
“We’re on a roll,” said Ervin.
For more information on the Historic Oregon Arts District, visit oregondistrict.org.
Reach DCP freelance writer Jennifer Hanauer Lumpkin at jenniferhanauerlumpkin@DaytonCityPaper.com