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Down a street called Brown

10:54 AM  Jun 1st, 2013
by Thomas M. Columbus

Instead of building a wall, UD built partnerships. Now Brown Street thrives.

Brown Street, once on the edge of campus and now in its center, remains in some ways unchanged over the past several decades. You can still get a porterhouse steak at the Pine Club, grab a turkey sub at Milano’s or have your feet stick to the floor at Tim’s.

But part of Brown is now very different. Once upon a time, there were — in reality if not in name — two Brown Streets: one near the upscale suburb of Oakwood and home to Tim’s, Milano’s and the Pine Club; the other, north of Stewart Street.

The Fairgrounds Neighborhood (bounded by Brown and Main streets north of Stewart Street and south of Miami Valley Hospital) was definitely not upscale when Tom Burkhardt ’70, vice president for finance and administrative services, was an undergraduate.

“It was a place,” he said, “where people dumped trash and old tires.”

When Steve Schmidt ’71 in 1980 told his wife, Angie ’71, he was thinking of buying a business on Brown Street north of campus, she said, “Isn’t that where you go to get beat up?”

Schmidt and Burkhardt are both people with UD history. Schmidt’s father, Bernie ’42, has an endowed chair in engineering named after him in recognition of his years of teaching at UD. On Burkhardt’s office wall hangs an old photograph — of three of the five generations of Burkhardts to attend UD.

Schmidt and Burkhardt share not only Dayton tradition; they, in different ways, share with many others in having built a path to the future for the University of Dayton and its namesake city.

That path runs down a street called Brown.

Steve and Angie Schmidt in 1980 took the risk of doing business on Brown when they bought a 4-year-old store, Second Time Around. While Steve built a law practice, Angie, who died in 2012, managed the store. While its sales of used merchandise shifted from vinyl to CDs and from VHS to DVDs, and as tablets and other electronic devices added a range of possibilities, the Schmidts expanded their business.

But, with short notice, Second Time Around could have become homeless.

“We were on a month-to-month lease with our landlord for 17 years,” Schmidt said. To ensure that the business would have a building to house it, when a property across the street came up for sale, Schmidt bought it.

“I took,” he said, “a $25,000 advance on my MasterCard.”

When another building came up for sale, he took another advance. Then, Second Time Around’s building came up for sale.

“My landlord called,” he said. “I had 13 days to make an offer. People kept telling me I’d be stupid to do so.”

But he did. Now eight Brown Street businesses call him landlord.

“It took,” he said, “staying power, confidence and belief in Brown Street.”

According to local developer Jeff Samuelson, “Angie was an angel. And Steve literally was a pioneer.”

When the Schmidts purchased Second Time Around, there were people across the street who also believed in Brown Street and had staying power. Joe and Irene Kiss 50 years ago co-founded the restaurant now named Joe Kiss Hickory Bar-B-Q. Joe spent 33 years with the restaurant until his death. His daughter Margo has worked there since childhood; her husband, Gary Fisher, has been there 33 years. And it’s not just co-owners who have been there a long time; a half-dozen people who aren’t family members have worked there more than 30 years.

“Most who leave,” Gary Fisher said, only half-jokingly, “leave only when they die.”

One waitress didn’t stay quite that long, but probably a bit too long. She had become very forgetful but was still working one day a week.

“A millionaire from up north was eating here,” Fisher said. “After dinner, he said to Joe, ‘We know she’s older, but we ordered steak and got chicken. That we don’t mind; it was good. But we got charged for the steak.’

“Joe asked the waitress why she was still working. ‘I want to make enough to play bingo.’ So, he told her she didn’t have to work; he just gave her weekly bingo money.”

Kiss, like Steve Schmidt, also took steps to ensure the survival of his business. For years, the Hickory had no parking of its own. The lot next to it was clearly marked as belonging to the Westward Ho cafeteria adjacent to the lot on its other side.

“One day,” said Fisher, “Joe told me the Westward Ho was going up for sale, and he was going to buy it before somebody else did. I asked him how much he was willing to spend. ‘Whatever it takes.’ We need parking.”

They got that needed commodity.

But while a few businesses on Brown Street thrived, the area as a whole did not. The Fairgrounds Neighborhood had flourished into the mid-20th century. Residents then included NCR workers along with a few UD students and some nursing students from Miami Valley Hospital. A number of NCR workers lived in rooming houses during the week and on weekends returned home (Kentucky for many).

But in the early 1970s, the NCR factory jobs began to disappear from Dayton as later did the factories and eventually the company’s world headquarters.

The rooming houses, which had provided good housing for the workers, deteriorated. The number of owner-occupied houses decreased. Absentee landlords, vandalism, panhandling and drug sales increased. Institutions — such as churches, Miami Valley Hospital and UD — tried to aid the people in the neighborhood. For example, UD students built programs and a playground for students at Patterson-Kennedy, a Dayton public elementary school at Wyoming and Alberta streets. UD’s chapter of Habitat for Humanity revived a boarded-up house at 51 Frank St. Staff from UD’s Strategies for Responsible Development worked with the area’s business association, laying the groundwork for people working together to restore the neighborhood.

But the problems were too big for service groups, volunteers and grassroots efforts alone to eradicate.

The area was perceived as unsafe. And often it was. After UD students were assaulted in the area in the early 1990s, a parent called Brother Raymond L. Fitz, S.M. ’64, UD president from 1979 to 2002, and said, “We should build a fence.”

Dick Ferguson ’73, an assistant to Fitz at the time, remembered Fitz later saying in a meeting about the situation, “Rather, we should build relationships.”

And emphasis on those relationships led to a renaissance.

“Brother Ray Fitz deserves an enormous amount of credit,” said Thomas Breitenbach, then president and CEO of Miami Valley Hospital, “for erasing the barriers that had existed between the University and the surrounding community, and using the University’s economic and intellectual resources to improve the neighborhood.”

Ferguson, who has directed UD’s Fitz Center for Leadership in Community since its founding in 2002, remembered that in the mid-1990s UD, Miami Valley Hospital and NCR were all doing master plans.

“Leaders from the city of Dayton,” he said, “were frustrated with a lack of Brown Street development and asked that we all get together.”

They did. Ferguson chaired the Rubicon Master Plan Committee. After the issues were identified, it became clear that No. 1 was the condition of the Fairgrounds Neighborhood.

Today Brother Bernard Ploeger, S.M. ’71,  is president of Chaminade University in Honolulu; Tom Arquilla ’81, senior vice president of business development and strategy at Mercy St. Vincent Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio. During the 1990s, they were representing the business interests of the University of Dayton and Miami Valley Hospital, respectively. One day in Ploeger’s office, the two were looking at a map of Brown Street.

“We agreed,” Arquilla said, “that the future, if we did nothing, was untenable. There would be blight. We would have walls around UD and Miami Valley. So we had to invest in the neighborhood or let it deteriorate.”

Their institutions each invested millions of dollars.

Miami Valley, directly adjacent to the Fairgrounds Neighborhood, did some work on its own, including relocating a street when the hospital built a new emergency department. Then came the phase, in Arquilla’s words, of “ramping up partnerships.” Among the partners, in addition to UD and Miami Valley Hospital, were the city of Dayton, Montgomery County and CityWide Development, a nonprofit economic community development organizer.

Miami Valley’s Breitenbach asked Arquilla to do some research about similar situations. One hospital, Arquilla said, reacted to its environment “by building its campus as a barrier to the neighborhood.”

Another hospital was St. Vincent in downtown Toledo, which worked to redevelop the area near it by renovating some houses, numbering under a dozen.

“I asked them, if they had to do it over, what would they do differently. Their reply was, ‘We didn’t do enough.’”

Dayton’s institutions decided they had to do enough.

The Rubicon Master Plan was completed in 1998; in 1999, UD and Miami Valley Hospital formally committed to Genesis, a project for transforming the Fairgrounds Neighborhood. UD’s commitment to the first phase (which would run through 2004) was $2.2 million. Contributions from Miami Valley Hospital and other institutions, including banks and government, brought the total to more than $14 million. The goals of the project were simple though ambitious:

  • transform the neighborhood into a safe and attractive area;
  • increase the home ownership rate from 17 percent to 35 percent;
  • provide homes affordable for families making between $25,000 and $40,000 per year; and
  • stimulate reinvestment in the business district.

An early acquisition, 1056 Brown St., became the Rubicon House, a community gathering spot and meeting place for those working on Genesis. Those coming to meetings there could, Ferguson noted, look across Brown Street and see children being raised amid drugs and prostitution.

Arquilla said that sometimes they asked themselves, “Do we know what the hell we have done?” But like Julius Caesar after he led his army across the Italian Rubicon, they knew there was no turning back. So they pressed forward — with a little help from their friends.

Friends included city police. Within view of the Rubicon House was a drug house, said Burkhardt, who by this time had succeeded Ploeger as UD’s chief financial officer. Having such tenants was one landlord’s mistake. The city acted against the dealer, and the property became available.

“It was still a huge price,” said Burkhardt, who, like Arquilla, was averse to overspending institutional resources.

And those resources, though substantial, were limited. Among the problems were drug deals being made on street corners and people bringing trash into the neighborhood and dumping it. Something had to be done.

“We installed video cameras,” Burkhardt said. “Since they were expensive, all except one were fake. But they worked.” Drugs and trash felt less comfortable in the neighborhood; and residents themselves organized and worked with the city in keeping the neighborhood clean.

In revitalizing the neighborhood, Arquilla said, Genesis faced two major obstacles: zoning that allowed rooming houses and a significant amount of property being owned by very few people.

Although the path to overcoming both challenges wasn’t always smooth, zoning was changed and property acquired. Old houses in untenable condition were rebuilt or demolished; new ones arose. And new curbs and sidewalks and trees appeared.

As the area moved to owner-occupied housing, about two dozen people who were renting in the old rooming houses had to find other places to live. Arquilla managed that process, bringing to it a personal perspective. In 1971, when he was not yet a teenager, his family lived across the street from a hospital.

“The landlord,” he said, “sold the property to the hospital. He gave us 30 days to get out. We were turned down for a loan. My father was ill. While he was in a coma, we got a loan. Then he died.”

So when Arquilla was working on acquisition of property in the Fairgrounds Neighborhood, he said, “I didn’t do what happened to me. We found those people places to live. We got them a real estate agent. We provided a relocation package. After I raised what happened to me, there was never any debate over those issues.”

The commitment of Miami Valley Hospital has been critical to the success of the neighborhood, said CityWide President Steve Budd ’76, who continues to chair the Genesis board. (The board also includes two members from UD and two from Miami Valley.) Funding from the hospital has supported two additional Dayton police officers for the neighborhood (without affecting other areas of the city), a social worker and community organizers. The hospital also offered strong financial incentives for employees to buy houses in the neighborhood. Julie Liss-Katz, director of public affairs at Premier Health (parent of Miami Valley Hospital), manages those endeavors.

“Of the 32 houses built by Genesis,” she said, “16 were purchased by Miami Valley Hospital employees.”

Genesis had attempted, Budd said, “to cure a ‘cancer’ in the neighborhood, to create an environment so commercial and residential development would come in.”

Coming in — and in a big way — was developer Jeff Samuelson.

It started small, with a colleague’s question about an available property: “Do you know this place on Brown Street?”

“It’s a pit,” Samuelson said. “But it’s near UD.”

That began a complicated series of deals running parallel to the Genesis project. Samuelson’s JZ Construction, as the lead for other partners and investors, acquired a number of pieces of property on the west side of Brown Street, including a bowling alley-turned-bar-turned-bingo parlor — and then found tenants, including Panera, Chipotle, Penn Station and Dewey’s. Samuelson also constructed the new Milano’s building and did the renovations to several other Brown Street businesses.

On the east side of Brown Street, the University joined with the Miller-Valentine Group to develop University Place, which opened in 2008 and runs from Stewart Street northward. The facility contains graduate student apartments, restaurants and shops, including Flyer Spirit — a student-run retail store.

Within the Fairgrounds Neighborhood itself now is another change — housing being built, not by nonprofit partnerships, but by a commercial builder, Charles Simms Development.

The renaissance of Brown Street from UD to the hospital extends farther north on Brown (and its continuation, Warren Street). A former city of Dayton firehouse has become Jimmie’s Ladder 11, a reincarnation of Jimmie’s Cornerstone Bar and Grille. One of Dayton’s premier restaurants, Coco’s, has established itself even farther north. And Goodwill Easter Seals is moving its Dayton headquarters to a nearby site.

Among the most visible recent changes to Brown Street are UD’s Caldwell Street Apartments, having risen on the site at Brown and Caldwell streets where the auto dealer Frank Z once did business. Across Brown Street at that point, what once was an NCR building has transformed into UD’s College Park Center. And substantially changed is the street itself; the past year saw a complete replacement of a long section and the addition of decorative street lighting, underground utilities, new traffic signals, new sidewalks — and dedicated bike lanes.

At its south end, Brown Street now appears to be spilling over into Oakwood. The former site of the Routsong Funeral home, across Irving Avenue where Brown Street turns into Oakwood Avenue, is seeing stores built that have a resemblance to the new ones on Brown — perhaps because the developer is Jeff Samuelson, and success gets imitated.

Dayton has learned the lessons of Genesis and the rebirth of Brown Street. These — being applied to the renewal of other neighborhoods throughout the city — include:

  • No one person or group can do it alone.
  • The bigger the idea, the better for gaining support.
  • Partners must commit long-term to both funding and staff.
  • Stakeholders must be clear about their interests and about shared interests.
  • Conflicts likely will lessen — but they will continue.

But a street called Brown now runs proudly through the heart of the University of Dayton to the suburb of Oakwood, to the center of Dayton and to worlds beyond.


Thomas M. Columbus has been around Brown Street long enough to have had a drink at the Shed, but claims he was not here to welcome the Marianists when they immigrated to the U.S.

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