M.O. with Mayor Leitzell

A final word and a look back

 By Gary D. Leitzell

Photo: Volunteers Norm, Joseph and David and recent Rwandan immigrant Theopene work on renovations at La Casa on Holt Street; Photo: David Leach

Editor’s Note: Over the past four years, Mayor Gary Leitzell penned a bi-monthly column for the Dayton City Paper, addressing various issues in the city for our readership. As he will be stepping down as mayor at the beginning of the new year, this will be Gary’s final column. It has been our distinct pleasure to provide this forum and we thank him for his time and contributions. -KM

 When my term as mayor ends on Jan. 6, 2014, I will get some normalcy back into my life. Normalcy I am actually looking forward to, even if just for a short while before the craziness of running for a county commission seat in 2014 begins.Of all the things that have happened in the last four years, I will likely be most remembered for the Welcome Dayton initiative. For those who are not familiar with this program, we took a stand to become a city friendly to immigrants. It was born out of the realization we had hundreds of Russian refugees living in our neighborhoods. They were investing in housing, creating jobs, creating a sense of community and the results were safer, more viable neighborhoods. When I encountered this community of immigrants early in 2010, I envisioned an opportunity to repopulate my city. The question I posed to staff at City Hall was, “How do we support these people so that they can thrive here?”From this concept, an idea developed. When we investigated our local immigrant population we discovered that people residing in Dayton came from nations all over the globe. The vast majority were here as documented individuals and some groups were quite well organized into business groups or community societies. Thus, Welcome Dayton evolved into a concept with global implications: If we attract people from other nations then we attract new ideas, new ways to solve problems and new cultural experiences that inspire our regular population to be more creative in their problem solving. It would be a travesty to miss this opportunity. Especially after recognizing what was already happening.

Announcing the support for this initiative in October 2011 was the best thing that could happen to this city. The timing was perfect and certainly not planned. At that time, states were passing anti-immigration laws to limit illegal immigrants and the focus on the immigration issue was at an all-time high. Here in Dayton, we were announcing our willingness to do the complete opposite because it was the right thing to do, and it made international news, placing Dayton on the world’s radar.

Where has this led us? I started attending the local naturalization ceremonies at the federal court each month. We started tracking the origins of our new American citizens. In 2011, there were 560 citizens naturalized coming from 96 different countries. In 2012, there were 913 citizens from 105 countries. This year will see at least another 815 citizens from 96 countries. This averages 64 new citizens a month for the past three years. The country providing the largest number of new naturalizations is Russia (20 percent), seconded by India (9 percent) and then the Philippines (6 percent). The countries most represented since 2011 have been Russia, India, Turkey and Uzbekistan. At least 30 percent of all the naturalizations have come from these four countries.

In 2010, there were 150 families in Dayton that defined themselves as Ahiska Turks. These are our refugees from Russia, Uzbekistan and some from Turkey. Today, there are some 450 refugee families here. This is more than 10 percent of the entire population that came to the United States as refugees. Between 2000 and 2010, census data tells us that Dayton lost 15 percent of its population, yet the population of foreign-born citizens grew by 40 percent during the same period.

This should tell you something about the desirability of the area. Dayton has a cost of living that is 27 percent below the national average and is extremely affordable with regards to housing options. For a mid-sized city, we have exceptional universities, arts venues and tourist attractions. We also have a friendly, open-minded population that thrives on creative thinking. I find it interesting that we cannot get people from the suburbs to buy property in Dayton, but we can get folks from halfway around the world to do so and invest in the property.

As the mayor of Dayton, being elected during the height of a recession, I was challenged with repopulating my city and providing employment opportunities for our citizens. Welcome Dayton is a vehicle to help make this happen – one of many tools to solve a problem. The next step is to attract foreign investment from those countries where our immigrants originate. Attracting business owners from Turkey or Russia seems like an obvious solution to a language problem. We have thousands of citizens speaking Turkish and Russian well and English poorly. To me, it seems obvious we should attract investment from people who need a workforce that they can communicate with from day one. Many immigrants are underemployed. Qualified to do a multitude of things in their mother country, they are trapped here. Their only hindrance is language. Breaking this barrier is the key to their success – and ours as a city.

It seems obvious at this point the federal government can’t work on a solution regarding immigration reform for the country as a whole, but here in Dayton we are working on local, common sense solutions for how we deal with issues affecting our foreign born citizens. While other cities wait for laws to pass so they can react, we are solving our local problems. When the nation is ready to figure this out, they will be asking us how we did it. Dayton first and as always, Dayton leads the way!

Reach Dayton Mayor Gary D. Leitzell at 937.333.3653 or GaryLeitzell@DaytonCityPaper.com.


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