The little things that make a big difference
By Gary D. Leitzell
Soon after being elected in 2009, I was asked by several people what big thing I was going to do to “save” Dayton. I had just inherited a nightmare. Businesses were leaving. The mortgage foreclosure crisis was hitting hard and we were in the worst recession since 1929, and the so-called “No Name Nobody from the neighborhood, with no money, no support and no clue” was now expected to “save” a city with a single idea? There were numerous properties that were two or more years delinquent in taxes and the water shut off locations in 2009. People were screaming at me about tall grass, empty houses and illegal dumping on their street and I had to come up with solutions.
I made some quick decisions. The first was to not waste any time going on a witch hunt for wrongdoing by the former administration. I could not change the past, only the future. The next thing I did was tell the department directors at City Hall to go out and make some mistakes. If we aren’t making mistakes then we aren’t trying to solve enough problems. I would cover for them because the media would come after me and not them. The media was coming after me anyway at that time, so I wanted them to have a legitimate reason to do so. I believe the phrase I used was, “If I go down moving Dayton forward, then I will have achieved my goal: To move Dayton forward.”
So, what about that one “big thing” solution? It did not exist at that time. The solution to “saving” the city was simple. We needed to do all the small stuff that was neglected for the past 20 years. We had “big thing” solutions from the past. These were Fifth Third Field, the Schuster Center and the Oregon Arts and Entertainment District, but they were not connected. Connecting the dots was going to get us moving in the right direction. We had to take a shotgun approach. Try everything. Most things will actually work, and those that fail will be negated by the shear volume of successes.
If downtown was to turn around, we needed more people on the streets. Entertainment brings people downtown. The Downtown Dayton Partnership began to promote entertainment at Courthouse Square. They started to market the Central Business District more effectively. More people on the street will attract small business owners. We started to see new restaraunts and coffee shops open. That will attract people to want to live downtown. We saw that residential occupancy rates were at 95 percent in the downtown neighborhood. Now we are building more downtown housing and businesses are moving their locations to the greater downtown area. Promoting the fact that downtown has one of the lowest crime rates in the region was also a factor. I had to break the perception of downtown and would promote it any opportunity that I had.
It doesn’t end there. The citizens had to feel a sense of pride and envision Dayton as a world-class city. City employees had to take pride in the jobs they do every day. When business owners came to me praising the staff in planning or economic development, I told them to tell the staff and I told them to tell other business owners their stories of success. This raised self-esteem and changed the perceptions of business owners about doing business with the city of Dayton. When citizens complained to me about tall grass and weeds, I told them to cut the grass themselves. This did not resonate well with all citizens. However, for those willing to do the task, it instilled pride and the knowledge that citizens had the responsibility to take care of and control of their neighborhoods. It did teach some that change would not happen unless they were willing to take action. I wasn’t trying to be popular, I was just trying to solve problems with simple, common sense solutions.
Then there was the whole recycling thing. Let’s give every citizen who wants to recycle the ability to recycle. This saves us money. Actually, now it makes us money. In 2010, we paid $14 a ton to dispose of recyclables. Now we are paid $1 a ton to drop it off. I advocated for us to be paid for supplying a commodity to a for-profit business, and it has paid off. Can you imagine the impact of this countywide if the proceeds were paid into an economic development fund for green businesses?
Of course, there is “Welcome Dayton,” which has gotten us the most attention. When you have 150 families of refugees from another nation descend on your city and they seem to be fixing up homes and improving the neighborhood, what would you do? I suggested that we simply facilitate their success. Four years later, we have 450 families and more houses occupied and improved as a result.
So, ask yourself what the price tag of any of this was. Pretty much, it was zero. The “Welcome Dayton” initiative cost us one salary and $40 for coffee and donuts, but the recognition justifies the costs. We did have to pay for the recycling bins, but the savings offset those up-front costs.
You know, I am proud of what I accomplished in four years with all this small stuff. The big stuff that costs real money is happening as a result!
Reach Dayton Mayor Gary D. Leitzell at (937) 333-3653 or GaryLeitzell@DaytonCityPaper.com.