The history and the culture of a place remains forever telling. And like the people they embody, cities have their own peculiar stories, shaped by those who have left their tale tell marks.
Last week, I was in Dayton, Ohio. Ostensibly, I was there to give a speech at the annual meeting of the I-70/75 Development Association, a group committed to economic growth in the Dayton region.
In my speech, I did impart some thoughts on the future of work in what I see as the early stages of a revolutionary new digital machine age. But I believe I learned far more from my hosts than what they learned from me.
First and foremost, I learned of an incredibly rich industrial history of Dayton, to which I have concluded that this city in southwestern Ohio truly was the original Silicon Valley, a place of incredible innovation.
An Inventor’s Town
Keep in mind that this was the hometown of the Wilbur and Orville Wright, two brothers who forever changed the world by designing and building the first successful heavier-than-air powered aircraft from their bicycle shop on West Third Street.
In a speech years later, Wilbur would say that if he were to give advice to a young man on how to get ahead in life, he would say, “Pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.”
Dayton was the home of by James Ritty, the owner of a saloon who wanted to stop employees from pilfering his profits. The Ritty Model I was the first cash register, invented in 1879, followed by “Ritty’s Incorruptible Cashier” patented in 1883.
Ritty sold his cash register business to Jacob H. Eckert of Cincinnati, who in turn sold the company in 1884 to John H. Patterson, who renamed it the National Cash Register Company, later to be called NCR Corp.
In 1906, while working at the National Cash Register Company, inventor Charles F. Kettering designed a cash register with an electric motor.
Kettering and Edward Deeds in 1909 founded Delco, the name derived from Dayton Engineering Laboratories Co. The company would later become the Delco Products Division of General Motors. While at Delco, Kettering would invent the first reliable battery ignition system and the first practical automobile self-starter.
As general sales manager at National Cash Register, Thomas J. Watson, Sr., who would eventually become the CEO of International Business Machine (IBM) interrupted a sales meeting, saying, “The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough. We don’t get paid for working with our feet — we get paid for working with our heads.”
Watson then wrote “THINK” on an easel, and signs with this motto were erected in National Cash Register buildings throughout Dayton during the mid-1890s.
It was at this same time that Dayton had been granted more patents per capita than any other U.S. city.
Patterson fired Watson in 1914, afterwhich Watson joined IBM, and “THINK” later became a widely known symbol of IBM.
Dayton resident Arthur E. Morgan did his share of thinking when he came up with the “hydraulic jump”, a flood prevention mechanism that helped pioneer modern-day hydraulic engineering following a devastating flood to the city in 1913.
More thinking in World War II, when the city hosted the Dayton Project, a branch of the larger Manhattan Project, to develop polonium triggers which were used in early atomic bombs. National Cash Register also helped develop a code-breaking machine that helped crack the German Enigma machine cipher.
The List Goes On and On
Other inventions (and this is not a complete list) originating from Dayton included the parachute, the first retractable landing gear, the ice cube tray, the stepladder, the air conditioning refrigerant Freon, the electric wheelchair, microencapsulation for the carbonless copy paper industry, microfiche, the parking meter, the gas mask, Ethyl leaded gasoline, the explosion-proof electric gasoline pump, the photoelectric cell, the LCD screen, and the pop-top aluminum can.
“We are talking about things that effect everybody, and they were born here. The list goes on and on. Try to go one day without using a Dayton invention and it is pretty difficult,” said Brady Kress, president and CEO of Dayton History.
On the pop-top can, legend has it that Ermal Fraze, owner of Dayton Reliable Tool and Manufacturing Company, was at a family picnic in the late 1950s. He wanted to drink a can of beer but had no opener. He eventually opened his beer using a car bumper, but vowed to develop an easy-opening can.
In short, Dayton was and I would argue remains to this day a hub of technological innovation, with a legacy of collaboration and creativity that will forever remain in the city’s DNA. I cannot fully fathom how or why Dayton became this patent capital, but it did. Maybe it’s the water.
My theory is that brain power somehow bequeaths brain power, and that smart genes just took root, creating a rather unique environment for experiments and wonder.
That is not to say that Dayton has not had it rough and tumble times.
Since the 1980s, Dayton’s population has been in decline, much of it due to the loss of manufacturing jobs. NCR Corporation stunned the city of its birth when it announced in June 2009 that it was leaving for suburban Atlanta. With the move came the loss of 1,300 jobs.
The announcement by NCR came only about six months after General Motors had shut down an assembly plant in nearby Moraine in December 2008, that once employed up to 5,000 people.
Also in 2009, Delphi closed its Vandalia plant. At one time, the automotive supplier employed more than 10,000 workers in the area.
To say that Dayton and the surrounding Miami Valley region was staggered would be an understatement. Dayton had the third-greatest percentage loss of population Ohio since the 1980s, behind only Cleveland and Youngstown.
“When manufacturing left, nothing filled the void,” wrote one Dayton resident in 2009. “My city was gone.”
A New Optimism
Well, it wasn’t gone. Dayton was down during the height of the Great Recession, but it was not out. Last week, I saw things that tell me that the city is not only on the mend, but that big things are yet in store, with a new optimism reigning.
First, and this may sound trivial but it is not, I witnessed a packed house at Fifth Third Field, home of the Dayton Dragons, a highly successful minor league baseball team and affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.
Every game in the team’s 15-year existence has been a sellout. The Dragons continued their sellout streak throughout 2015 and finished the season with their 1,121st straight sold-out game.
Since NCR’s departure, other blue-chip companies have come, and I openly wonder if they would had come if NCR remained. I’m not sure so sure, but that’s speculation on my part.
What is true is that the city no longer had to expend so much energy on a company whose CEO did not want to be there, indeed, had never lived there. He said it was difficult to recruit talent to Dayton. Companies that have come since NCR’s departure have cited just the opposite.
21st Century Stuff
In April 2011, GE Aviation broke ground on its $53 million Electrical Power Integrated Systems Research and Development Center (EPISCENTER) on the University of Dayton campus.
The center’s close proximity to talent residing at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base and the University of Dayton Research Institute was all important. University researchers will work with GE to develop and deploy computer modeling, simulation and analysis of advanced, dynamic electric power systems design and controls.
Trust me, this is 21st century stuff.
Also on campus, also due largely to the presence of the University of Dayton Research Institute and also cutting edge 21st century technology is the Emerson Climate Technologies’ Helix Innovation Center. Its purpose is to advance research and education for the global heating, ventilation, air conditioning and refrigeration (HVACR) industry.
The 40,000-square-foot center officially opened on April 27. Inside the Helix, which I toured, was a fully functional two-story, three-bedroom, 2,000-square-foot home. The outside chamber offers temperature simulations from minus 20°F to 120°.
Said Emerson CEO David Farr at the grand opening, “This is pure innovation the way it should be done.”
Farr’s comment hits to the heart of what Dayton has always been about.
More Big Projects
There have been other big capital investments that have come to the Dayton area. In nearby Union, near the Dayton International Airport and Interstate 70, Procter & Gamble has built a flagship, 1.8 million-square-foot, multi-brand distribution center. It employs about 1,300 people.
Northwest of Dayton in nearby Clayton, Caterpillar, Inc. moved into a new 1.5 million-square-foot distribution and assembly facility in 2010. The building was designed and constructed in just 10 ½ months.
Chinese-owned Fuyao Glass, the largest automotive glass manufacturer in the world, has invested $450 million in a portion of the former GM plant in nearby Moraine. About 1,400 workers are employed there, but that number could increase by another 1,000, said company chairman Cho Tak Wong, who paid to $15 million to buy much of the former auto plant in 2013.
Also in Moraine, DMAX, announced last year that it will invest $142 million at its 584,000-square-foot engine plant. About 150 jobs will be added over the next three years to the current level of 600 people now working there.
Also out by the airport, where road improvements and utility infrastructure continues to be built, groundbreaking should commence by mid-June for a yet announced project, which will include research and development, manufacturing and warehouse distribution.
Big, culture-changing downtown development projects are in the works, including redevelopment of the Historic Arcade, an architecturally elegant complex built between 1902 and 1904.
The Arcade consists of five interconnecting buildings topped by a glass-domed rotunda, 70 feet high and 90 feet in diameter, adorned with oak leaves and acorns, grain, rams’ heads, wild turkeys. Vacant for nearly three decades, it needs to be saved and restored to its previous glory.
Five Rivers MetroParks manages some of the best natural areas in Montgomery County, including RiverScape Metro Park on the Miami River, in downtown Dayton. A bike hub is here, the first east of the Mississippi, and the center of the 330-mile trail network, the largest in the country.
Anyone living in downtown Dayton could, if they so desired, ride their bike to Cincinnati, more than 50 miles away. Kayaking and canoeing are big draws on the Miami River.
I already told you about Fifth Third Field and the sellout Dayton Dragons.
A Pipeline to Talent
I have always been convinced that talent matters, that it separates certain communities from others. But you need to draw out talent from a population and provide opportunities for personal growth.
Three local institutions of higher learning are doing that, providing a pipeline of talent to employers in the area.
I mentioned before the University of Dayton, a top-tier national Catholic research university with a mission of service and leadership in community. One of three Marianist universities in the nation, it is the largest private university in Ohio.
Wright State University is a public research university located near Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Fairborn, a suburb of Dayton. Originally operating as a branch campus for Ohio State University and Miami University, Wright State became independent in 1967.
Located in downtown Dayton, Sinclair Community College is the largest community college at a single location in the state of Ohio one of the largest (by enrollment) community college campuses in North America.
It was at Sinclair where I met the workforce development officials for all three schools and heard about their programs. I could tell that they all knew each other and worked well together.
It was also at Sinclair where I gave my speech to community stakeholders and toured a laboratory dedicated to research and development of unmanned aerial vehicles.
The Center of the Universe
I could write a heck of a lot more about Dayton, including the soon to be opened Montgomery County Business Solutions Center, which will provide workforce and strategic development services for free to local businesses.
I could tell you about BusinessFirst! For A Greater Dayton Region and how Erik Collins, head of Montgomery County Community & Economic Development, places a premium on business retention and expansion.
A quotable quote from my friend, “Business retention is the center of the universe, period.”
Now I call that sage talk, absolutely great advice to any economic developer anywhere, period.
The Stories I Could Tell
I could tell you about the incredible National Cash Register collection of machines at Carillon Historical Park and the original locker room of the Dayton Triangles, which won the very first NFL game on Oct. 3, 1920. It also now sits in the park.
I could tell you how the aforementioned Brady Kress, a fascinating fellow, learned to make beer, thereby creating the Carillon Brewing Co., making 19th century (warm) beer stored in wooden casks. It is also in the park.
I could tell you about Wright Flyer III, the first practical airplane, which flew in 1905. The actual plane, not a reproduction, sits within the confines of Carillon Park. (That’s me in the photo with the plane. Sorry.)
I could tell you how I walked my legs off at the 1.1 million-square-foot National Museum of the United States Air Force at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. (The sole of one of my shoes actually separated as a result.)
I could tell you about Warped Wing, a craft brewery that I visited in downtown Dayton, named in honor of the Wright Brothers and their theory of how to achieve aeronautical lift. I know the beer sure gave me a lift.
And while I’m on a roll, I could tell you about the Century Bar, listed by Men’s Journal as among the 10 Best Bourbon Bars in America. The actual wood bar dates back to the 1860s and I think they may have hundreds of different whiskeys in stock.
The Biggest Story
But the biggest story of all concerning Dayton is that of its resilience. This town really took it on the chin during the Great Recession, greater than most places.
But it’s leaning forward today. A history of innovation and experimentation lives on here. It’s still in the DNA. You cannot say that about all places, which is why I think Dayton will do just fine.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a location advisory and economic development consulting firm based in Dallas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 972-890-3733. Mr. Barber is available as a keynote speaker.