There’s a lot going on in downtown Dayton: in some ways, it’s growing. Housing is being built or redeveloped, and small retail and restaurant businesses are taking root. In other ways, it’s struggling, with around a 30 percent vacancy rate for office buildings and a high rate of tax delinquency, including in some high-profile empty buildings like the Arcade. CareSource, a major downtown business tenant, is expanding and adding jobs, but employment downtown still doesn’t live up to the hopes and the needs of the surrounding community.
Regardless, a lot of people are interested in the future of downtown, and we’ve heard about it at WYSO Curious. We sometimes holds voting rounds where we let you choose which question we’ll answer next, and in this case folks chose between a question about downtown nightlife, development on the river, and whether downtown might see another grocery store anytime soon. Here’s the question that won, which we heard at Second Street Market from a Dayton resident named Christy:
“Will there ever be the opportunity for another grocery store, or something like that, down here?”
She asked about the future, and while we’re not fortune-tellers at WYSO Curious, we were able to find out a few things.
Numbers, and driving, are the driving force
There are some clear reasons why a big-name or even a locally-owned full service grocery store downtown is a hard proposition. Fundamentally, it’s a numbers issue: big box and chain stores looking into new locations carefully study the population, its demographics and tastes before choosing locations. Profit margins for grocery stores are slim, and smaller or more isolated locations may have to raise prices to stay running.
According to the Downtown Dayton Partnership, in the one-mile radius around the intersection of Main and Third Streets there are about 4,500 households with an average income of just over $30,000 a year. Most of them are considered white-collar workers, but still we’re not talking massive numbers or massive wealth to support, say, a Whole Foods store. Within three miles you’re talking almost 100,000 people, and the average income goes up, but most working people in that greater area drive to get around. From Main and Third, it’s just a couple minutes to the Wayne Ave. Kroger, and only a few more to Dorothy Lane Market in Oakwood. There's already a Stop N’ Save grocery on Third and Main downtown, but it’s difficult to park, and some say it’s overpriced.
“It may be convenient to have it downtown, but if I’m buying all of my week’s groceries and it costs me an extra, let’s say 100 dollars to buy what I can drive two miles, four miles away and buy, and save that hundred dollars every week, folks are gonna drive,” says Greg Scott with the Dayton Plan Board.
Scott and others say the push for a grocery store relates to a broader problem that’s not just about who lives in downtown Dayton: it’s a car culture problem. As long as people are willing and able to drive a little further for a better deal, another non-chain grocery store is a tough sell for downtown—and chains won’t come until they have hard numbers.
Scott does have an idea for a future location for a grocery store, the former Supply One building on Wayne Ave. near Fifth St. which could easily include a parking lot but is within walking distance of much of downtown.
Nonetheless, a recent survey by the Downtown Dayton Partnership asked participants to choose one new amenity or attraction for downtown that they'd visit most often, and a grocery store topped the list.
What’s happening to make it happen
Downtown Dayton economic developers and political leaders say housing and residential density come first. Then, they hope, more food options will follow.
“At the end of the day we just don’t have the residential density yet,” says Sandy Gudorf, President of the Downtown Dayton Partnership. “I’d say it’s a matter of time. And I can’t say how much time, because we work really hard to attract them, but we just don’t have the density.”
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley has said the city is focused on increasing downtown housing, which means finding ways to convert old office space or encourage new construction. She says that’s a priority in part because residential development downtown is popular, with low vacancy rates. The city can find developers willing to enter into public-private partnerships and repair aging buildings. Of course, downtown isn’t the only area where people have raised the issue of a lack of food or grocery resources; large swaths of West Dayton are far from groceries, as well.
Whaley says downtown is a priority because it’s accessible to the whole community.
“I would definitely argue that downtown growing is good for every neighborhood in the city of Dayton,” she says. “When we see the rebirth of the core, that helps and has an effect through the whole city.”
Not everyone dissatisfied
Not every downtown resident is saying an additional full-service grocery store is what’s needed for the area. A few years ago, the young professionals group UpDayton started a project to look at food resources downtown. They were on a limited budget for a year-long project, and ended up created what’s called the Dayton Food Finder, a map that helps people find food in and around downtown including specialty and ethnic groceries and farmers' markets. They found there are actually lots of options to get food downtown. WYSO used some of UpDayton's suggested locations to create a map of some of the grocery resources downtown. Yellow indicates locally-owned, purple indicates a chain store, and the orange dot is Greg Scott's suggested location for a new store.
Emmy Fabich with UpDayton says that although she understands the call for a grocery store, she thinks we need a cultural change more than anything.
“We’re in a society right now where we’re very spoiled,” she says. “You should have to go to more than one location to get all of your food. And you shouldn’t be able to rely on it being delivered to your doorstep.”
She admits that she’s not feeding a family, but for Fabich, a smattering of locally-owned resources including Second Street Market and local Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and community gardens all come together to meet her food needs. If a new full-service grocery store is a long way off, she says, downtown residents will make it work—and they might be more likely to support smaller local outfits that aren’t able to stock everything at once.
For those who are interested in the future of downtown Dayton, the Downtown Dayton Partnership is hosting a community update on the Greater Downtown Dayton Plan on Wednesday, Nov. 19, from 3:30-5:30 p.m. at the Schuster Center Winter Garden. As of Monday, more than 400 people had RSVP-ed for the event.
WYSO Curious is our series driven by your questions and curiosities about the Miami Valley. Is there something you’ve always wondered about the Miami Valley’s history, people, culture, economy, politics or environment? Send in a question now, and check back to see which questions we’re considering.
Lewis Wallace is WYSO's managing editor, substitute host and economics reporter. Follow him @lewispants.