Friday December 16, 2016

Hearing the Call

By Eric Spina

As I stepped inside the historic octagon-shaped Roundhouse at the Montgomery County Fairgrounds earlier this week with Miami Valley Hospital President and CEO Mark Shaker, I walked back in time to its heyday.

I felt nearly 150 years of the history of our community sweep over me. I imagined the horse-drawn combines, tractors and plows that were exhibited there across many generations of Southwestern Ohio families.

Outside, even on a wintry December day, I could envision a time when thousands of Daytonians gathered to watch horse races, balloon ascents, even rodeos.  According to historical accounts, 2,000 children formed an American flag on stage at the fairgrounds during a homecoming celebration for Orville and Wilbur Wright in June 1909 after their successful European exhibitions of powered flight. At one time, Tom Blackburn’s Flyer teams played at the Coliseum here. And, of course, the fairgrounds will always hold nostalgia for children who won blue ribbons, savored cotton candy and rode the Tilt-a-Whirl during the annual fair.

Throughout the colorful history of the fairgrounds, community leaders have periodically questioned whether it should be located in the city. At the turn of the last century, NCR founder John Patterson suggested it be moved outside the city limits. The location of the 37-acre property — near downtown, Miami Valley Hospital and the UD campus — makes it arguably one of the most desirable developable tracts of land in the region. Three years ago, civic leaders began discussing relocating the fair to a more agricultural setting and selling the fairgrounds to make way for a mixed-use development.

While we weren't intimately involved in those discussions, we have a historic relationship with Premier Health through our long-time partnership with Miami Valley Hospital on initiatives to help the Dayton community. Over several decades, the hospital, the city and UD have engaged in a number of projects that sparked revitalization around  Brown Street. So when redevelopment proposals fell through late last month, it was natural for us to join Premier Health's ongoing efforts to redevelop the fairgrounds area by partnering with it to buy the property.

That move may surprise some people, but it resonates with our history of action, our history of partnership and our history of community focus.

In 1850, we bought the farm. Literally. We turned Nazareth Farm into a school for 14 primary boys. That purchase, secured with a medal of St. Joseph, was more than a leap of faith. It was a bold yet pragmatic act. Those acres of orchards and vineyards blossomed into this major Catholic university — all because Father Leo Meyer and the Marianists had the foresight to look beyond the farm and into the future.

The Marianist philosophy of “reading the signs of the times” and seizing the moment have guided us throughout history. In recent years, we renovated a brownfield, attracted research and innovation companies and, in a gutsy move, acquired a Fortune 500 headquarters.  

Today, we’re looking beyond the fair and into the future.

We fully expect a healthy long-term return on our financial investment as we start tabula rasa and determine which University, Premier Health and private opportunities offer the best use of the land for our own purposes as well as the vitality of the community. Mary Boosalis, the president and CEO of Premier Health, and I look forward to healthy dialogue from a wide variety of perspectives.

In the short term, the county fair and a horse show will take place at the fairgrounds in 2017, as scheduled. The Montgomery County Fair deserves a grand send-off as it finds a new home.

Community leaders are looking to UD and Premier Health, as strong anchor institutions on the southern edge of the city, to be good stewards of this land, to transform it for future generations.

Just as I heard the call of the past when I toured the fairgrounds, I hear the call of the future.

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