Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Dayton Attracts Immigrants to Increase Economic Vitality

Republished with the permission of Copyright© 2013, U.S. Chamber of Commerce. 

This post is excerpted from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation's Enterprising Cities report. The report highlights seven cities with policies and practices that will help strengthen our free enterprise system.

Like many other industrial cities across the nation, Dayton, OH, has faced a multitude of economic and demographic challenges over the past half-century. Years of decline in manufacturing coupled with suburban flight led to steadily dropping populations in the central city. Since reaching a peak in 1960, Dayton’s population has dropped more than 40%. While the city’s economy has diversified over the past several decades and the Dayton metropolitan area remains home to a notable entrepreneurial and corporate sector, local leaders have continued to face a shrinking population, emptying neighborhoods, and the need to find new ways to spark economic growth and attract residents to the city.

Identifying the Opportunity, Building a Plan

In 2009, the city of Dayton’s Human Relations Council launched a study examining housing issues facing immigrant communities in the city. During this process, city leaders noted that new waves of immigrants, particularly from Turkey, were beginning to move into the city seeking economic opportunity.

Encouraged by these developments, the city launched a series of community meetings, discussing the potential of immigration as a tool for community revitalization. As a result of these meetings, a group of engaged community members came together to write a new plan designed to help Dayton become a city that intentionally welcomes immigrants. The final product included guidance from multiple community members, groups, and private and public sector leaders. Once completed, the plan was unanimously adopted by the city commission and became the framework for the Welcome Dayton initiative.

Officially launched in October 2011, the Welcome Dayton plan is focused on improving integration of immigrants into the city’s economy, reducing barriers to business creation by immigrants, and creating an immigrant-friendly city culture that will be attractive to skilled and entrepreneurial immigrants. The city’s goal is to fight declining population by attracting motivated immigrants to start businesses, rehabilitate neighborhoods, and create jobs.

Since its start-up, Welcome Dayton has identified four areas of action: health and social services, education, improvement of city services, and business and economic development. City leaders hope to take a holistic approach to development, ensuring that services tailored to the needs of new immigrants allow them to more easily put down roots and successfully create businesses.

Spreading the Word, Engaging Community Support

From its initial conception, Welcome Dayton’s push to build an immigrant-friendly city has been centered on building community support for the concept. The divisive atmosphere surrounding immigration politics at the federal level can create an atmosphere of contention around local issues as well, potentially leaving citizens and community groups hesitant to get involved. While Welcome Dayton’s efforts are aimed at supporting legal immigrants to the community, program organizers have worked to ensure that the entire community is engaged in creating and guiding the initiative. By structuring the program as a grassroots effort, instead of a top-down, bureaucratic solution, Welcome Dayton’s founders have aimed to build real civic engagement on the topic of immigration, its challenges, and the opportunities it provides the community.

In addition to building momentum around the plan using community meetings, Welcome Dayton’s business and economic development strategy involves a two-pronged internal and external approach to communication. Internal communications are designed to reach out to groups already working with immigrant entrepreneurs in the public and private sectors to help these groups align their services and efforts with Welcome Dayton’s immigrant-friendly goals. The initiative’s external communications are focused on educating the community about immigrants and the value of immigrant entrepreneurs. By keeping the community in the loop about the program, Welcome Dayton hopes to “ease fear,” reduce uncertainty, and build an understanding of how immigrant small businesses can fit into the city’s history of innovation and entrepreneurship.

‘Everyone Has to Be Involved’

Welcome Dayton’s hopes for success hinge, in large part, on successfully bringing together partners from all sectors of the community. The program is designed around an acknowledgment that government alone cannot create the immigrant-friendly environment needed to spur new growth. While government efforts can help build a foundation for success, sustaining such efforts takes cooperation between the private, public, nonprofit, and education sectors. As the program’s coordinator, Melissa Bertolo, points out, “everyone has to be involved.”

Various local partners in the private, public, and educational sectors have stepped up, ready to get involved. The program’s Welcome Dayton Committee, created in May 2013, is made up of leaders from throughout the community, including private business, the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce, education, and nonprofits. The new committee will use its networks to encourage organizations to do “one more thing” to make the community more immigrant-friendly. By embracing such small steps, the initiative hopes to build sustainable change.

The city’s local universities, Wright State University and the University of Dayton, have also signed on to the plan, offering outreach and education, supporting international students, and creating new partnerships with institutions in other countries. In parallel with city efforts, the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce has launched a Minority Business Partnership (MBP), aiming to support and encourage business development by immigrants and other minority groups in the region. The MBP program creates supply chain opportunities for local businesses with an emphasis on minority and immigrant business investment and participation.

Encouraging and Supporting Immigrant Entrepreneurs

Welcome Dayton has made support of new immigrant entrepreneurs one of the key priorities of its economic development efforts. According to program leaders, immigrants are more likely to start a business than their nonimmigrant neighbors, but they are also more likely to fail. Differences in culture, government regulation, and business finance all serve as potential barriers to success for immigrant entrepreneurs. By identifying challenges and educating immigrant entrepreneurs on doing business in America, Welcome Dayton hopes to ensure that the community will be able to take full advantage of the investments immigrant small businesses make in their neighborhoods.

As part of these efforts, Welcome Dayton is forging working partnerships with existing small business support agencies in the community, including the city’s Small Business Development Center and Minority Business Assistance Center. By coordinating outreach efforts and informational materials and by making sure that “everyone is on board,” the initiative is designed to bring multiple resources to bear to expand the availability of programming targeted at immigrants and to increase the community’s odds of success.

For many immigrants, including entrepreneurs, dealing with unfamiliar American ways of doing things can be daunting. Something as basic as starting a bank account can be challenging. While many immigrants have entrepreneurial skill and drive, an inability to interact with the system can prove an impediment to success. Welcome Dayton helps recent immigrants and new entrepreneurs navigate the bureaucracy and educates them on working with the private sector. By working to address the entire experience of an immigrant moving to the community, in all sectors, Dayton hopes to ease immigrant transition into American life and ways of doing business.

As part of its economic growth agenda, Welcome Dayton is focusing support on key areas of the city. The city has identified a neighborhood with organic growth in immigrant population and activity and singled it out for special attention. By focusing investment in the area, the city hopes to build on the existing demographic trends and create nodes for future growth. Options for neighborhood support, including providing fa├žade improvement grants for small businesses, launching a retail incubator, and creating private sector lender support services for immigrant entrepreneurs, are being explored by program leaders. The Welcome Dayton plan has also made a commitment to ease the burdens and barriers faced by business in general, helping not only immigrant entrepreneurs, but all businesses interested in putting down roots in the city.

Reaching Out to Build Bridges and Expand Trade

As new immigrants have put down roots in the community, the city of Dayton is actively looking to exploit the new cultural ties they have created between their new and old homes. In 2012, Dayton’s mayor, Gary Leitzell, led an “expeditionary team” of community business leaders on a trade mission to Turkey, seeking to capitalize on the city’s newfound role as a center of Turkish immigration and business activity.

Representatives from the Dayton Area Chamber have also organized trade promotion and travel opportunities with many major global emerging markets, including meeting with Turkish officials and establishing new connections during a visit to Washington, DC. While Turkey is just one of the chamber’s targets for expanded trade with the Dayton region, the city’s success in attracting Turkish immigrants has helped elevate that nation’s importance. The city’s universities have also gotten involved, exploring new partnerships with Turkish counterparts with an eye toward building stronger ties between Turkey and Dayton.

Enabling the Entrepreneurial Spirit, Sustaining Growth

In many ways, Dayton’s new immigrant-friendly city initiative is a model of building on organic success. Between 2000 and 2010, the city’s foreign-born population increased by 50% on its own, as immigrants streamed to the area in search of affordable costs of living and economic opportunity. The Dayton region’s immigration rate shot up 40% between 2011 and 2012, to a level at or above its regional peers.

Region | Immigration Rate, 2012 | Change in Immigration Rate, 2011–2012
  • Dayton | 1.47 | 40.3%
  • Ohio (Entire State) | 1.34 | 7.0%
  • Akron | 1.44 | 5.3%
  • Cincinnati | 1.51 | 4.6%
  • Cleveland | 1.72 | 4.1%
  • Columbus | 2.44 | 3.6%
  • Fort Wayne, IN | 1.25 | 8.1%
  • Pittsburgh | 1.12 | 4.7%
  • Toledo | 1.11 | 6.2%
  • Youngstown | 0.39 | 8.6%
  • United States | 2.83 | 13.4%
Source: U.S. Census Population Estimates; regions are metropolitan areas.

Faced with a new source of population, Dayton’s community and business leaders have moved to improve the overall environment of support for new Americans, and help immigrants with a dream of entrepreneurship unleash their potential—creating jobs and revitalizing communities in need of a new economic spark.

The city’s new culture of being supportive to legal immigrants is built around improved communication, bringing together people and groups that might not otherwise be talking, to collaborate on a new community growth strategy. In order to sustain the new spirit of cooperation, the city has joined the Welcoming Cities and Counties Initiative, a network of local governments committed to building immigrant-friendly environments. By working with other cities, Welcome Dayton will be able to gather new ideas, share successes, and help build a replicable model based on best practices that can be shared with cities nationally.

While Welcome Dayton’s push to support immigrant entrepreneurship has been built around a 36-month time frame, the overall initiative is being conceived as a long-term strategy. By building stronger networks among government, the private sector, local nonprofits, and community members, Welcome Dayton hopes to prepare the city for a nationally changing demographic environment. The city’s new focus on immigrants as an asset for growth, rather than a challenge to be dealt with, is positioning it to take advantage of the opportunities provided by this new demographic reality.

Dayton, OH: An Enterprising City


  1. This is the best plan the City of Dayton ever came up with! If you understand the history of these immigrants coming to the City of Dayton, buying old houses and taking pride in fixing them up then it is hard not to be totally supportive of this effort.

  2. It’s great to see the public and private sectors coming together to build such a successful program!
    Way to go!

  3. I am all for an equal opportunity in this country, because that is what we are all about. Any "special efforts" toward one segment undermine that. I believe in helping our current citizens first and foremost. I support a program called "entrepreneurship" period. Our own residents should have seniority. Charity begins at home.

  4. Population declines in an area as opportunities in other areas motivate migration to those other areas. While it will always be possible to find someplace worse off than where you are, bringing in additional population will drive down wages, strain social services, and lower overall sandard of living.

    The only beneficiaries of such a plan would be owners of fixed assets (e.g. real estate, private schools, brick and motar businesses, etc.) as additional population means additional demand which drives up value.