Dayton pushes policy reforms

Some neighborhoods suffer from change, opponents argue.

By Cornelius Frolik
Staff Writer

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Policy reforms aimed at increasing civic engagement have changed the way Dayton interacts with its neighborhood groups and coincide with increased use of programs designed to beautify and revitalize the community, officials said.

Dayton last year adopted a community engagement strategy with the intention of improving communication and collaboration between the city and its neighborhood groups, citizens, business owners and other stakeholders.

But some community members said the new system has hurt revitalization efforts in neighborhoods that are disorganized and do not have groups to reliably represent them.

The city shifted funding away from priority boards and changed how neighborhood groups can access city dollars for improvement projects. The city also revamped the land use priority board system.

Dayton officials said the changes have corresponded with a marked increase in volunteering, neighborhood cleanups and local improvement projects.

“We’ve got more neighborhoods out there willing to partner, build relationships and get things done,” said Connie Nisonger, a city of Dayton community development specialist II.

Some neighborhoods just don’t have the organizational leadership to compete for city funds with Dayton’s most well-run community groups, said some observers.

“In a lot of these places, you can’t get somebody to take the job,” said Fred England, chair of the Southeast Priority Board.

The city began discussions in 2012 about updating and changing its community engagement strategy. City officials noted that the priority board system had remained virtually unchanged since 1971.

The city hosted public meetings and gathered citizen feedback about redefining the city’s role and responsibilities as they relate to communicating and working with citizens and neighborhood and business groups.

In April 2014, the city adopted a new strategy that is more project-focused and neighborhood-based, said Aaron Sorrell, Dayton’s director of planning and community development.

One big change was consolidating the land use priority boards to five bodies from seven and having city leadership elect the members.

Previously, the land-use committees were elected by the priority boards.

The city also stopped providing funding to the priority boards, which in the past distributed money to neighborhood and business associations.

The city restructured the system so priority boards and neighborhood and business groups are all essentially on equal footing, Sorrell said.

He said priority boards previously acted as a go-between for city government and neighborhood groups.

But now all of these groups apply directly to the city for funds for festivals and community-improvement projects.

He said this makes the city more directly involved with its neighborhoods.

“We had a tiered approach in the past,” he said. “The approach we have now is a direct linkage, so there isn’t necessarily an intermediary.”

The city provided about $13,000 for 27 neighborhood festivals this year.

The city also awarded $83,046 in mini-grants to 20 neighborhood projects this year, three times the amount in 2014.

The improvement projects are getting bigger and more far neighborhoods are requesting and receiv ing allocations, said Nisonger.

“The dollars increased as the projects increased,” she said. “It’s gaining in popularity.”

The Salem Avenue Busi ness Association used a $5,000 a mini-grant to help establish a community garden at Salem and Grand avenues. About 15 organizations partnered together to return a vacant site to productive use.

The Salem Community Garden improves the local business climate and produces fresh food to donate to local feeding programs, said Larry Ramey, with the business as sociation.

Garden volunteers get food to take home, but several hundred pounds of fresh produce were donated to the House of Bread, the Dayton Food-bank and a local church, said Steve Makovec, a member of the business association.

The site is a source of community pride and helps address problems related to the food desert along lower Salem Avenue, he said.

The mini-grant program was established in 2012 to fund small community-improvement projects.

All groups can apply for festival grants, but only nonprofit groups are el igible for neighborhood mini-grants.

In the absence of a 501(c)3 designation, local groups must partner with churches or charitable organizations to obtain funding for a improvement project, city officials said.

Dayton also benefited from about 320 neighborhood cleanups this year, compared to about 120 in 2014.

The city said this year it has collaborated more closely with the Montgomery County Solid Waste District.

Neighborhood cleanup projects can obtain dumpsters at no cost to dispose of and remove debris, officials said.

The county also supplies a free trailer that comes stocked with landscaping tools and other equipment to remove trash, said Briana Wooten, a spokeswoman with Montgomery County Environmental Services.

Nisonger said some Dayton neighborhoods are cleaner and more attractive because of new beautification projects.

She said the number of volunteers working to improve local neighborhoods has soared and the new focus on projects has increased community participation.

Nisonger said projects allow neighbors to form relationships and build social capital.

But the changes have prompted criticism from some current and former members of local priority boards.

Dealing the priority board system a fatal blow by cutting off funding was not necessary, because the boards could have been rebuilt instead of scrapped, said England, with the Southeast Priority Board.

England said the city apparently was motivated to break up the boards because they felt some were dominated by long-time members who wielded too much power.

But England said it can be very difficult to get people to participate in civic activities and neighborhood groups, and some struggle more than others to attract members.

“We’re losing representation in some of our neighborhoods,” he said.

Critics say some neighborhoods lack organization because they have high concentration of citizens who are unlikely or incapable of making the time commitment of serving on a board or association.

This can include renters or single parents or other groups.

Kevin Jones, the former chair of the Fair River Oaks Priority Board, said many neighborhoods are not aware of the changes and they no longer have a priority board to act as their voice and work on their behalf.

“It matters because in unity there is strength,” said Jones, who was ousted as chairman this year and no longer serves on the FROC board.