We could be like Ohio.Dayton, OH

Aerial view of downtown Dayton, OH.

I just got back from a business trip to Dayton, OH, where I heard from many civic leaders and activists about the problems their community faces. The city’s population has fallen by half from its heyday – from300,000 to just over 150,000. They now face the prospect of losing a good chunk of federal funding at the next census when their population is expected to drop below 150,000.* In fact, the population in the metro area has not increased over the past 20 years, it’s simply been redistributed into a larger geographic area with a much lower population density. Consequently, there are 8,000 vacant housing units in the city.

They’ve also lost most of their industry, as all of the industrial midwest has, and all of their Fortune 500 companies. The last Fortune 500 company to leave Dayton was MeadWestvaco. Oops… It made me realize that every corporate relocation to Richmond is a loss for others.

Many people I spoke with thought regional cooperation would help solve many of the area’s problems- everything from improving education, to preserving farmland, to saving money by not duplicating services, to preventing the deterioration of aging infrastructure in older areas.

However, there are daunting barriers to regional cooperation there. While I often lament the problems of Virginia’s independent cities structure, my visit to Dayton has me rethinking my complaints.** Within Montgomery County, Dayton’s location, there are 16 separate school jurisdictions(!), each with their own superintendent, their own elected school board, and worst of all, their own taxation authority to create funding for their schools. Some school districts use income taxes, others use sales taxes, and still others use property taxes. The process for achieving any meaningful regional cooperation or integration is distressingly complex. Not only are serious technical negotiations needed to integrate the various different tax and governance structures, but there are 16 political fiefdoms which are, no doubt, jealously guarded by those who are in power. Then there’s the potential community opposition, with the explosive issues of race (the county is 76% white, 20% black, while the city of Dayton (which is a part of Montgomery Co.) is 53% white and 43% black) and class. Nevertheless, there are promising signs of life there too, with several organizations advocating for regional cooperation. Talks are ongoing about merging the county’s various 911 services, although even on that non-threatening issue, some of the county’s regions want to stay independent.

So even though I complain about Richmond, this trip showed me some specific blessings to count. As a region, our population is increasing. The City of Richmond is losing population, true, but much more slowly than many areas. We’re stealing companies from other cities. And while I don’t see many positive efforts at regional cooperation here, should we ever have leaders that decide to try, there are actually many fewer barriers than in Dayton. Oh, and we have cooler neighborhoods and our downtown is better.

*The federal government gives funds to cities based on population, with increases for every 50,000 residents. Richmond’s federal funding decreased when we dropped below 200,000.

** I will write more on the problems Richmond faces as an independent city in a future post.