A changing Dayton is rebounding with young professionals

“If you left 10 years ago ... what you’re finding here (now) is very different”

Sarah Malchow and Jacqueline Richardson both grew up here, and now they’re colleagues as mortgage loan officers in town. But their paths in between illustrate one of the Dayton area’s continuing challenges — recruiting and retaining young professionals.

Several groups are trying to take advantage of Dayton’s momentum both downtown and elsewhere. Generation Dayton, Dayton Homecoming, Dayton Young Black Professionals, plus young professionals groups in South Dayton and Beavercreek all try to enhance the experience for young adults

“It just seemed like a way to galvanize what is already going on, to try to create a new narrative about Dayton,” said Peter Benkendorf, who leads Dayton Homecoming. “If you left 10 years ago and you recently came back, what you’re finding here is very different than what it was.”

Two examples

Sarah Malchow was born and raised in the area and settled here years later. But she didn’t stay after graduation. Malchow moved south twice as an army wife and returned to Dayton when her husband was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.

She works as a mortgage loan officer at Day Air Credit Union. She stayed in Dayton to continue her career and raise her two children, with plans to stay until they graduate high school. After that, Malchow looks to leave Dayton and return south.

“There’s so much going on now in downtown Dayton. Like as a kid, it wasn’t, and now it’s just rebuilding,” said Malchow.

Jacqueline Richardson is a Miamisburg native who’s also a Day-Air loan officer. She stayed in the area to be close to her family and community. Several of her friends and fellow Miamisburg High School grads left Dayton.

“They feel like they just don’t really have a lot of opportunities within Dayton,” Richardson said. “I see some people, they get paid better if they go somewhere else or if they move.”

Groups offer connections

A steady stream of people pushed open the door to the Oregon District café Reza’s, grabbing name tags and ordering coffee. Overlapping chatter bounced off the high ceilings as small groups traded handshakes and names.

This was the scene of a recent morning mixer put on by Generation Dayton, a group for young professionals that is part of the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce. Organizations like these are working to play a role in recruiting and retaining professionals in Dayton.

“They told me to look at the Chamber’s young professionals group in order to get a little bit more involved with the community,” said Carlina Figueroa, chair of Generation Dayton. Sinclair staff introduced her to the organization when she first moved to the area after her husband was stationed at Wright-Patt.

Elsewhere, Dayton Young Black Professionals and the Dayton chapter of the National Black MBA Association share missions to “empower” young Black professionals by teaching life skills, giving networking opportunities and supporting the community. Some groups focus on developing young professionals in hopes they will stay in Dayton and enhance the community as a whole.

Benkendorf’s Dayton Homecoming, part of the Dayton Collaboratory, aims to bring people back to the Gem City. They run a Facebook group and hold monthly meetings. Homecoming’s focus is on individuals reaching out to their connections to create relationships and convince others to move here.

Some of Dayton’s previous groups for young professionals are now inactive. The YWCA recently acquired UpDayton, a nonprofit that was known for events like the UpDayton Summit, where community members presented ideas for service projects in Dayton. Winners received funding to help them in making their ideas a reality.

One winner, Bryan Stewart, created The Longest Table, a dinner party with community members from a variety of backgrounds on a table spanning Third Street Bridge. Stewart grew up in Dayton, left for college and returned for good to develop his career.

“It’s important to stay active in these organizations,” Stewart said. “There’s tons of creative young people looking for an outlet to affect change here.”

Engaging young talent

This spring, about 1,700 students graduated from Wright State University. The University of Dayton conferred about 3,200 degrees across all levels during the 2020-2021 school year. Sinclair Community College had over 870 students who graduated or left in good standing. This adds up to over 5,000 recent graduates from just three of the schools in the Dayton area.

Young professional groups are looking to keep those grads in the area by getting them involved in the community through networking events like the morning mixer, speakers for professional development and events like Generation Dayton’s annual day of service.

“Engaging young talent is key in retention in terms of the workforce,” Figueroa said.

Groups with a similar mission include South Dayton Young Professionals, Beavercreek Young Professionals Network and Urban League Young Professionals.

“Our main focus is three different aspects: one being professional development, two being social and three being community service. So we have events that coordinate around all three of those pillars,” said Johanna Hartley, board president of South Dayton Young Professionals.

The social aspect has become more important since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. More and more employees began to work remote or hybrid schedules. Although numbers for telework specifically caused by COVID-19 have fallen, remote work as a whole will continue to be part of our economy.

Teleworking rate during COVID-19

YearOverall %age 16-24 %age 25-34 %
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

“We’ve seen in the last two years since COVID, a lot more people joining our organization just from a social aspect,” Hartley said.

More than 20 new members joined South Dayton Young Professionals in the last year for this reason. This is a return after COVID-19 caused membership numbers to drop for Generation Dayton and South Dayton Young Professionals.

“Our numbers went down, of course. But we’re starting to have a bounce-back year,” said Greg Allen, chair-elect of Generation Dayton.

Affordability is key

Young adults ages 20-29 are one of the largest population groups in Montgomery County, second to only people over 65, according to 2020 census data. In the past five years, the county has been losing people aged 20-24 while building a greater elderly population.

Census estimates for 2021 reveal that trend may be ending, with young adults aged 20-24 increasing throughout the county for the first time since 2016. The return to Dayton could be due to the city’s recent developments, according city employees and partners.

Attracting and retaining young professionals is the greatest issue facing the businesses of Dayton, according to Holly Allen, vice president of marketing and communications for the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce. Despite that, she said the Dayton area has seen “positive momentum” in job growth and the number of businesses coming to the city.

Ipos Public Afairs, a market research firm, surveyed over 1,000 people around the country between age 18 and 23 and found that affordability ranked in the top three motivators for 73% of young professionals when deciding to relocate for work. Those surveyed defined “affordability” as having low-cost housing options and a low cost of living.

Dayton has a much lower cost of living than the national average and is more affordable to live in than other Ohio cities like Cleveland and Cincinnati, according to the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Generation Z also wants a community where they can make an impact and land a career that is stable, and full of opportunity for advancement,” Allen said. “Dayton truly is in the sweet spot for professionals wanting to get engaged and grow, both at work and in the community.”

Creating a “cool factor”

Several large projects in housing, arts and entertainment, transportation and infrastructure are aimed at revitalizing the Dayton area and attracting people to live, work and visit the Gem City. The Greater Downtown Dayton Project, which boasts improving Dayton’s “cool factor,” was launched over a decade ago.

The project has helped add dozens of new businesses to the region and supports entrepreneurs in starting up their businesses. It’s a large collaboration with community partners working to develop the region with restaurants, businesses, parks, entertainment and housing. Over $1.5 billion has been invested in the city since 2010, and another $250 million is in the pipeline for upcoming developments.

“We’re an organization that focuses on strengthening downtown and making it a great place for people to want to visit, to invest, to live and to grow their businesses,” said Downtown Dayton Partnership President Sandy Gudorf. “Our focus is squarely on downtown and we know that if there is a healthy, vibrant downtown, that’s good for the entire region.”

Montgomery County’s unemployment rate sat at 3.4% as of May, according to the US Bureau of Labor and Statistics, which is one of the lowest rates in the past three decades and a sharp decline from the COVID-19 pandemic high of 16.1% in April 2020.

A majority of young professionals graduating from Wright State University stayed in Ohio immediately after graduation. A first-destination survey sent to students who graduated between July 2020 and July 2021 showed that 57% of respondents found employment in Ohio after right graduation. For the University of Dayton, 47% of graduates in the 2020-21 class found employment or a graduate program within the state of Ohio, according to career services at the university. Half of those students stayed in the Miami Valley.

Housing and things to do

Having a place to live in Dayton is another prong of revitalizing the area for people to move back to the city or settle here for the first time. Downtown development has added dozens of new rental properties to the area, and there are 474 units in the pipeline to be built within the next 18-24 months. A nearly 600-person increase in population occurred in the downtown core between 2010 and 2020, according to the Downtown Dayton Partnership’s analysis of census data.

The Dayton Development Coalition predicts housing units, both owned and rented, to increase over the next four years. Rent in the city is also increasing, with a $345 increase in the median rent price in the past year. But Dayton rent prices remain 50% lower than the national median.

Promoting active lifestyles in Dayton is a major focus. Improving bike paths and walkways throughout the city has been key to achieving the goal of getting Daytonians outdoors and using alternative transportation methods.

Four waterways streaming through the heart of the region — the Great Miami River, Stillwater River, Wolf Creek and Mad River — are another asset. In addition to existing features like the River Run and fountains in the Great Miami, current proposals include a “park-over-the-river” bridge along the Great Miami, expanded and linked bike paths throughout the area, and a large multi-use development along the river in West Carrollton.

ExploreRiverway developments on display at Great Miami paddling event

The Downtown Dayton Partnership conducted a survey in 2019 asking about 400 local businesses how they feel downtown Dayton is developing. Eighty-four percent of employers surveyed felt downtown was “better off” than it was in 2016.

“We know that attracting and keeping young professionals’ talent is very, very important for our region and for the companies that locate here,” Gudorf said. “We know that an active downtown is really important.”