Mike Colvin is the guy you hope to be seated next to at a dinner party.
He’s funny, smart, warm, compassionate, and did I mention funny?
Colvin has a passion for the Gem City and his work with the Downtown Dayton Partnership has helped pilot Dayton’s revitalization.
Here’s what our Daytonian of the Week has to say about the community.
What’s your story? You’re a Dayton-area native. But tell us why you decided to settle in the Dayton area.
My story? Uh… Once upon a time there was a boy who found it incredibly awkward to talk about himself. Who exactly are you expecting will want to read my story? Insomniacs? Can’t they just try Ambien?
Alright, sure. My story… Yes, I’m a Dayton-area native. I grew up in one of Dayton’s suburbs. I’ve never actually asked my parents why they chose to live there, but I assume it’s for the same reasons a lot of people do: they wanted a nice place to raise a family where they could give their kids a good education and a nice neighborhood and a good shot at living better than they did. And to that end, I can’t complain. We weren’t rich, or even nearly as “middle class rich” as many of the others in the suburb, but we were comfortable and safe and relatively privileged and went to good schools and were lucky for what we had. And even though I also grew up noticing some things about that suburban life that I didn’t love (especially a lack of diversity in race, social and economic backgrounds, thought, opinions, interests, experiences, etc.), for many years I still pictured my future as if there were no other option – no possible path besides a suburban life with a house and a yard and a picket fence and 2.5 kids and maybe, if I was lucky, I’d find some way to avoid ever having to drive a minivan.
That life never quite felt like “me,” and as time went on, I realized more and more that it wasn’t and that I didn’t have to live it – that there were other options. I’m leaving out some major life events and skipping way ahead for the sake of brevity (too late!), but fast forward to today and you find that I now live in downtown Dayton in a loft-style home with no yard and only .5 kids if you count the dog I adopted about a month ago. Also no minivan.
I know that you weren’t implying this definition of the word, but it’s interesting that your question includes the term “settle.” Interesting because the defensive side of me tends to think that that’s what people must assume I did when they learn that I still live in Dayton… “settle.” And, to be honest, there have been times in my life when I wondered if I was meant for a bigger city – if my personality and interests and opinions would be more at home in Chicago or New York or Seattle. But I haven’t really felt that way in years – and especially not since I moved downtown.
Staying in Dayton wasn’t ever really my plan – it just kind of happened that way through jobs and life and luck and inertia. But, now that I’m here, it’s an active decision that I make every day: to stay. And I stay because I legitimately love it. I don’t want to gush too much and start praising Dayton like it’s my job, because when you read the next question you’ll find out that it is, in fact, my job, and you’ll think I’m only saying these things because I’m contractually obligated to do so.
It may be my job to say nice things about Dayton, but I’d say them even if it weren’t. There are so many things I love about this town in general and, more specifically, my life here. One of the biggest is the “best of both worlds” factor. I’m by no means the first person to say this, but downtown Dayton is a place that offers a lot of the best amenities of city life while also having the soul and close-knit comradery of a small town. Everyone knows everyone here, and any time I go out somewhere, I can guarantee I will know someone there – more likely several someones. I have had friends visit from out of town and marvel at the fact that 12 people said hello to me as we walked five blocks. They tell me I must be some kind of celebrity, and I assure them that I absolutely am not (or at least wasn’t, before this Daytonian of the Week honor changed my life forever) – it’s just Dayton. I have met so many incredible people here who have become lifelong friends and my chosen family, and I feel like downtown Dayton just attracts a certain kind of human that I really like.
I have a great time here. There is something fun to do literally every day of the week (usually multiple options that make choosing difficult). It’s easy to get around, easy to fit in, easy to make an impact, and easy on the wallet (at least a lot easier than most other cities). And, yes, despite our embarrassment of riches here, there are times when the size and volume of other cities’ offerings are a draw. The good news is that we live within a six-hour drive of about a dozen other cities, so Dayton is a perfect home base for experiencing other places. I truly love it here. I can’t imagine too many other places where you’d get this quality of life for the price, get to enjoy small-town charm and big city amenities, and meet such fantastic people. If this is settling, I’m okay with that.
Explain what you do with the Downtown Dayton Partnership? How long have you been with them?
Since either the Pleistocene Era or the Roosevelt administration – I can’t remember which. I’ve been there a while, is what I’m saying.
I’m the Director of Communication and Marketing for the DDP, and this May I’ll have been there 11 years. The easiest way to describe the Downtown Dayton Partnership is as a nonprofit organization that focuses on making downtown Dayton a better place to live, work, learn, play, visit, etc. We work with downtown businesses, property owners, residents, and others, and provide services like marketing, strategic planning, economic development, advocacy, clean and safe services, and other efforts to grow, strengthen, and support downtown.
We’re a small organization, staff-wise, so there’s definitely some variety in what each of us does, but for simplification purposes I’ll say that some staff focus more on economic development-type work, some focus on events, and some focus more on marketing downtown. I head up our marketing and communication efforts, working to spread the word about what makes downtown unique and great.
The community has watched the transformation of downtown Dayton in the last decade. What is the biggest change you have noticed?
That it’s a lot harder to get my usual seat at the bar.
As I mentioned above, I’ve been at the Downtown Dayton Partnership for just over a decade. When I started, the country had just been hit by the biggest recession since The Great Depression, which had exponentially worsened the economic downturn that Dayton and its downtown had been experiencing for years. It was tough. The good news stories for downtown were few and far between, and we were doing our best to promote them while also working with partners to lay the groundwork for better days ahead. This was also the time that the Greater Downtown Dayton Plan was created to provide a blueprint for downtown’s future and try to focus efforts on revitalization and strategic planning.
Change doesn’t happen as quickly here as it does in cities that have huge corporations with deep pockets, and the change we saw was hard-fought (not just by us, but by many, many people and organizations). But little by little things got better and momentum started and grew, and then we’d see these sort of milestones of mini-breaking points where the momentum would feed itself and progress would beget more progress. I’m resisting the temptation to put my work hat on and provide you with stats and charts and graphs that show how dramatic the progress has gotten, but suffice it to say that today we can hardly keep up with all the good news stories there are to communicate. Investments made in downtown projects since 2010 are now being measured in BILLIONS of dollars (yes, with a “B”), and the progress is happening much more quickly.
And, really, that’s the biggest change I’ve noticed – the momentum. The speed of change. The way positive impacts build on each other to the point where they start attracting more investment by themselves and generating more positive impacts. The change in how downtown Dayton is perceived, at least among investors and builders and entrepreneurs, and hopefully among the average person in Dayton’s suburbs and the surrounding region. All of that has come so far in the decade-plus that I’ve worked for the DDP and been fully plugged into downtown. There are other individual big changes — like the amount of downtown housing and how full it is and how much downtown has become a residential neighborhood or the number of retail shops and small businesses and dining and nightlife options that have opened in recent years. There are also the new amenities like Levitt Pavilion and The Flyer circulator bus. But really, it’s the overall momentum that wows me the most. We are in such a different and better place than we were 10 years ago.
What’s your favorite part of the transformation?
I think my favorite part is what a group effort it is. This is not the work of one organization, and it definitely isn’t a situation where we could rely on a Fortune 500 company to buy naming rights to everything and write huge checks to make things happen (though we certainly appreciate all your donations and sponsorships — please keep them coming!). Downtown Dayton’s transformation has taken hard work from everyone — every organization, every large and small business, nearly every Daytonian and nearly every ounce of their creativity and patience and belief and sweat equity. And the beauty of that is that we all own it. We all made this and we all take pride in it. I love that so many people in downtown Dayton proudly defend it and proudly display their love for it without a shred of irony or sarcasm. After decades of being our own worst critics, we’ve become our greatest cheerleaders. The strength of the transformation is in the way it was achieved – by everyone, with love and hard work, over a long period of time – and that’s such a unique and great thing to see.
What would you want people to know about the community that they may not realize?
That it truly is just that: a community.
Dayton, and especially downtown Dayton, is made up of people who really care. People who stick together. People who take care of each other and go out of their way to do so. People who, rather than seeing each other as competition, choose instead to help and support each other’s efforts and applaud their successes and lend a hand in the darker times.
I think the region — and to a great extent, the nation and world — got to see this on display last year after all the terrible tragedies we endured together. But the truth is that community was always there. Long before last summer, this town had that “we’re in this together” attitude, supporting one another and extending countless forms of generosity and having each other’s back. It’s a hard thing to describe or explain, but when you’re part of this community you see it all the time, and even though it has in some ways become routine, it never ceases to amaze me. There is something really special here, and it’s intangible and tangible at the same time. I don’t know if it stems from the hard times this town has been through, or the chip on our shoulder we have at being perpetually overlooked and underestimated, or the extra work and scrappiness it takes to get by, or the tradition of creativity and innovation, or just dumb luck and something in the water. Probably it’s a perfect storm of all those factors and more. But there is a kind of “Dayton magic” to this community, and I’m proud to be part of it.
What do you see in Dayton’s future?
Flying cars and robot butlers, obviously.
I see the positive momentum continuing. I see more downtown housing being developed to meet the demand and, with the increase in residents, I see downtown getting closer to that goal of 18-hour-a-day activity. I see some big projects in the near future transforming downtown further — things like the Arcade project and its innovation hub, new hotels, activity in the Fire Blocks and Oregon East areas, and placemaking initiatives that not only add to downtown’s walkability and vibrancy, but also start to create better connections between the pockets of downtown that already are thriving. I also see more people starting to take notice of the positive changes that have been happening downtown for a while now, and hopefully continuing to change some of the remaining negative perceptions.
What are your favorite places to eat and/or drink in the Dayton area?
I’ve heard some good things about a place called Century Bar. I’d like to try it sometime. (That was a dumb joke to give my friends and my liver something to laugh at.)
It’s no secret that Century is essentially my “Cheers,” except instead of Norm and Cliff you get me, and instead of Sam Malone you get one of the extras from “Sons of Anarchy.” Or at least you did, before Joe Head became a Kentucky Colonel and stopped bartending to, one assumes, perfect his secret blend of 11 herbs and spices. At the risk of sounding hipster-pretentious (“I was into it before it was cool”), Century started to feel like a second home well before they started getting nationally recognized and attracting way more customers than the space could handle. I’ve spent more hours inside that wonderfully dark, mahogany time machine than I can possibly count (which may explain my pasty complexion), and I regret almost none of those hours. I’m looking forward to seeing the new space they’re moving into next door, especially since I more or less paid for it.
Century is by no means my only downtown haunt, however. Despite living most of my life within a five-block radius, I do like to spread myself around. Some of my long-time favorites are Lucky’s (pro-tip: no matter how much it makes you feel like a 5-year-old, order the chicken fingers sometime – trust me), Trolley Stop (especially during patio season or beer tastings or for live music), Corner Kitchen, Wheat Penny, and Warped Wing (among many others). The Reuben pizza at Oregon Express is pretty great, too. Newer places I’ve been spending a lot of time lately include The Barrel House (Wu-Tang Wednesday is one of my favorite things to do in this town), Old Scratch Pizza, the Van Buren Room, and Canal Street Arcade & Deli. Also a big fan of the beers at Branch & Bone, and need to get there more often.
Farther afield, some of my favorites are Ajanta, Linh’s Bistro, Kung Fu Noodle, Meadowlark (I went through a couple-year period where I ate brunch there almost every Sunday), and just about any hole-in-the-wall authentic Mexican place (Tacqueria Mixteca, La Michoacana, the little taco truck that parks on the south side of Third Street, etc. I also really miss Johnny’s Tortas). Admittedly, the OG Daytonian in me still gets a Marion’s craving every once in a while, too.
What would your perfect Saturday in Dayton be?
Why do I feel like we just switched from Dayton.com to Match.com?
Honestly, my social life is a little backwards. I find that I have plans enough of the weeknights that, when the weekend comes, a lot of times I end up using those days to do something more low key — like housework, or a movie, or a small get-together with Stevie Wonder, Dave Chappelle, and 40,000 Daytonians.
Not to give a cop-out answer, but I’m not sure there’s any one recipe for my perfect Saturday. I like to hike, and we are so fortunate to have such great MetroParks in our back yard (literally my back yard, when it comes to RiverScape, but I especially love Germantown and Twin Creek MetroParks). We’re also lucky to have an amazing independent movie theater in The Neon, and I try to see most of the films that show there. Meeting friends for a meal or a drink and some good conversation is one of my favorite things, and being downtown, that usually means running into other friends while you’re out and just seeing where the day takes you.
Even though I live the vast majority of my life in downtown Dayton, I do like to get out of town frequently, too. I like a good road trip and do a lot more of those than I do traditional “vacations” to more remote destinations. Most of those road trips tend to revolve around live music, and I’m often on the run to Nashville or Chicago or Columbus or Pittsburgh or wherever someone good is playing. Admittedly, I can get a little obsessed, and may or may not have traveled to see the same band 11 times in five different cities last year. So, yeah, I guess a lot of my “perfect Saturdays” involve me trekking off to see a concert somewhere and typically trying out some good restaurants and visiting those cities’ art museums while I’m there.
For Dayton, let’s say “a” perfect Saturday could be hike, movie at The Neon, spontaneous dinner with friends, duck into Century for a bourbon (neat) and a Sazerac. That, or stay home and fall asleep catching up on Netflix until the dog wakes you up to let you know you’re drooling on her and she needs to go out.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
What, like the music of George Michael?
Oh, man. Well, first of all, I try not to feel guilty about the little, inconsequential stuff that typically qualifies as a “guilty pleasure.” I’ve got too much soul-crushing guilt and anxiety about everything else in the world to also be making myself feel bad about the fact that I like to sing along with “Brandy” by Looking Glass.
That said, just off the top of my head, I think these are probably what you’re looking for:
• The “snooze” button
• ‘70s singer-songwriter tunes
• The chili cheese burrito from Taco Bell (no longer listed on the menu and yet somehow still available)
• U2 (I know it’s been about 30 years since it was cool to like them, but I grew up with them and still go to a handful of shows every time they tour)
• “Dumb and Dumber”
• Peanut butter and cheese toast (Kraft American slice or Swiss – learned this from my mom growing up)
• Louis C.K. (there is actual guilt here, because there is legitimate reason not to like him)
• The first half of “So I Married an Axe Murderer…”
• ‘80s power ballads
• Puns / dad jokes
• Being a grammar snob
• Answering questions with obnoxiously long answers (see above)
• Good, old-fashioned schadenfreude
What’s something you’d like to know about Dayton?
What’s with all the chicken bones and floss picks?
We have the cleanest city streets and sidewalks I’ve seen, but I’m constantly finding these two very specific things in my path – rarely together, mind you, because that would almost make sense. Who is walking around town every day, hurriedly eating chicken wings on the go and throwing the bones on the ground, and then cleaning their teeth with a floss pick and tossing that on the sidewalk, too? I’m trying to picture the person who has enough decorum to care about oral hygiene and proper flossing, but not enough decorum to care about littering. That is a weird Venn diagram. And, yet, here we are.