DAYTON, Ohio — Fighting back from the ravages of industrial decline, Dayton adopted a novel plan two years ago to revive its economy and its spirits: become a magnet for immigrants.
The Dayton City Commission voted to make the city “immigrant friendly,” with programs to attract newcomers and encourage those already in Dayton as a way to help stem job losses and a drop in population.
In north Dayton — until recently a postapocalyptic landscape of vacant, gutted houses — 400 Turkish families have moved in, many coming from other U.S. cities. Now white picket fences, new roofs and freshly painted porches are signs of a brisk urban renewal led by the immigrants, one clapboard house at a time.
“We want to invest in the places where we are accepted better,” said Islom Shakhbandarov, a Turkish immigrant leader. “And we are accepted better in Dayton.”
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Other struggling cities are trying to restart growth by luring enterprising immigrants, highly skilled workers and low-wage laborers alike. In the Midwest, similar initiatives have begun in Chicago, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Lansing, Mich., and Detroit. In June, officials from those cities and others met in Detroit to start a common network.
“We want to get back to the entrepreneurial spirit that immigrants bring,” said Richard Herman, a lawyer in Cleveland who advises cities on ideas for development based on immigration.
The new welcome for immigrants reflects a broader shift in public opinion, polls show. More Americans agree that immigrants, even some in the country illegally, can help the economy, giving impetus to congressional efforts to overhaul an immigration system that many say is broken.
Concerns about uncontrolled illegal immigration, which produced strict curbs in Arizona and other parts of the country, have not been an issue in Dayton. Officials say their goal is to invite legal immigrants. But they make no effort to pursue residents without legal status, as long as they are otherwise law-abiding.
The momentum for change in Dayton came from the immigrants. In 2010, Shakhbandarov told the newly elected mayor, Gary Leitzell, that he was thinking of asking Turkish immigrants across the United States to settle here. Most of the Turks in Dayton are refugees who fled persecution in Russia and other former Soviet bloc countries.
Leitzell was intrigued. “I said, the worst thing that could happen is that 4,000 Turkish families could come to Dayton and fix up 4,000 houses,” the mayor recalled. “So how do we facilitate their success?”
With 14,000 empty dwellings in the city, officials were open to trying something different.
Working with local organizations, the city found interpreters for public offices, added foreign-language books in libraries and arranged for English classes. Teachers went back to school to learn other languages.
Local groups gave courses for immigrants opening small businesses and helped families of refugees and foreign students. City officials worked with Wright State University, a public institution, to find ways for immigrant doctors and engineers to cut through bureaucracy and gain certifications so they could practice in the United States.
The police chief, Richard Biehl, ordered officers to no longer check the immigration status of crime witnesses, crime victims and people stopped for minor traffic violations or other low-level offenses.
Biehl said that
approach allowed the police to focus dwindling resources on serious crimes. Immigrant leaders, especially Hispanics, embraced it, becoming less wary of the police.
City officials said the whole effort cost them one salary for a program coordinator and some snacks for meetings. While it is too early to say whether the program will jump-start an economic rebound, early results are promising.
Turks chose Dayton, Shakhbandarov said, because the cost of living is low and there were universities nearby for their children. The newcomers have started restaurants and shops, as well as trucking companies to ferry equipment for nearby Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. They have used their savings to refurbish houses in north Dayton, where Turkish leaders estimated Turks had invested $30 million, including real estate, materials purchases and the value of labor.
Shakhbandarov stood at the entrance of the Turkish community center that recently opened downtown. Turks bought the center, empty and dilapidated, from the city with a favorable loan. Now it houses a neighborhood preschool and martial-arts classes, joined enthusiastically by girls in headscarves.
“It’s all about attitude,” Shakhbandarov said. “Americans maybe have seen better days of Dayton, a better life, better economy. But we never (have) seen that. We have learned to appreciate what we have. And what we have here is much beyond what we ever had before.”
Other immigrants also are busy. A group of Africans is working to start a roasting company in Dayton for coffee from that continent.
Gabriela Pickett, who is from Mexico, runs an art gallery and haven for Hispanic immigrants and others, providing social support, including for those without legal status.
“I would be lying if I said there is no rejection in Dayton for people who are different,” Pickett said. “But the city has been very proactive in trying to educate people.”
African Americans, who make up 43 percent of Dayton’s population, agree with the goals of the city’s program but said they were waiting to see the results. Derrick Foward, president of the Dayton Unit NAACP, said he was concerned that immigrant businesses were not hiring enough black employees.
“I think Welcome Dayton is a very good initiative,” Foward said. “But I would like to see more diversity hiring as part of their practice from the start.”
Recent research suggests Dayton’s experience is not accidental. In a national study published last month, Jacob Vigdor, an economics professor at Duke University, found that in the past four decades, immigrants helped preserve and in some cases add manufacturing jobs in cities where they settled. They also added to housing values.