New food hall shows Wright Dunbar's promise: 'A lot more is coming'

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Aug. 5—Dayton's first food hall recently opened in the Wright Dunbar business district after years of work, bringing about a half dozen food and beverage options to an area that some people have described as a "dining desert."

But the food hall isn't just a new place to eat and drink — it's also a transformative project that shows that market demand in the urban core is rippling out to surrounding neighborhoods, some leaders and officials say.

"Greater Wright Dunbar is working hard to capture, compete, harness and build on that market — so many of the incremental efforts of the last 25 to 30-plus years is shaping that," said John Gower, real estate chair of Wright Dunbar Inc.

Another new business opened in Wright Dunbar the same week as the food hall, and other buildings and properties in the district are being targeted for redevelopment.

West Social Tap & Table opened for business on July 25 at 1100 W. Third St. in the Wright Dunbar historic business district. The $2.1 million food hall has a bar and six independent businesses that sell pizza, coffee, tacos and other popular fare.

The food hall was planning to host a block party today, but that has been pushed back to Aug. 23 because bad weather is expected.

Dillin Financial, Clous Road Partners and Wright Dunbar Inc were partners in the real estate venture.

Perceptions about Wright Dunbar and West Dayton neighborhoods have been the biggest challenge to attracting investment to the areas, said Veronica Morris, economic development supervisor with the city of Dayton.

Wright Dunbar and West Dayton communities experienced significant disinvestment for decades, as larger developments occurred in Dayton's wealthier suburbs. But a growing number of people want to live in urban areas and there have been more initiatives focused on encouraging economic equity, she said.

Developers are always trying to manage risk, and they seem to be emboldened by the growing momentum in Wright Dunbar and other areas around the downtown core, said Dave Dickerson, president of Midwest business development with Miller-Valentine Group, which is not associated with the food hall project.

West Dayton has benefitted from a new facility for Economy Linen, the Greater West Dayton Incubator, planned investments at the Wright brothers' airplane factory site and other nearby projects, he said.

"I think there's a lot of energy and a lot of eyes looking at it," he said.

Dickerson said it helps that the food hall was spearheaded by local developers and businesses who are invested in the community and who were unlikely to walk away if challenges arose, as some out-of-town investors might choose to do.

Wright Dunbar and the surrounding area had few dining options, aside from fast-food establishments.

The business district's only traditional sit-down restaurant, Texas Beef & Cattle, closed its retail and dine-in services in mid-2021 after five years in operation.

The surrounding area had been called one of the largest food deserts in the nation, east of the Mississippi River, though the opening of the Gem City Market in May of last year helped change that.

The Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park in Wright Dunbar has more than 10,000 visitors each year, but until now there had been nowhere nearby for them to dine, said Erica Hubler, director of real estate for Wright Dunbar Inc.

The neighborhood has more than 300 households, but those residents had to go elsewhere for dining, she said.

Several individual food operations that opened in the business district over the years ended up closing because of a lack of sustainable traffic and a lack of multiple food choices, said Gower, with Wright Dunbar Inc. who also works for the city and CityWide.

But Wright Dunbar and West Dayton have seen incremental progress over the years, Gower said, and market demand in Dayton's core is spreading to other parts of the city, even those that are separated by rivers or other boundaries.

Wright Dunbar is west of downtown, across the Great Miami River.

The food hall is a destination that provides plenty of choices, and Gower said the model of having multiple businesses under one roof had already proven to be successful in Wright Dunbar by Tae Winston's Entrepreneurs Marketplace.

Wright Dunbar and other parts of Dayton have benefited from renewed interest in urban areas from people who want diversity, authenticity, density, walkability, social and entrepreneurial opportunities and face-to-face experiences, Gower said.

Dayton's first food hall could have happened anywhere in the city, but it opened in Wright Dunbar because of vision, timing and opportunity, he said.

Gower, half joking, has described Wright Dunbar as an overnight success story that is 30 years in the making.

Wright Dunbar has benefitted from about $30 million in investment in the last decade, which includes business development, private capital and significant infrastructure improvements like the replacement of the Third Street Bridge, officials said.

And "a lot more is coming" to the neighborhood, said Jeff Jackson, president of the Wright-Dunbar Village Neighborhood Association, at the food hall's ribbon-cutting ceremony.

West Social isn't the only new establishment that opened in Wright Dunbar last week.

Juicing Jammers, a juice and smoothie bar, had a soft opening of its new brick-and-mortar location at 13 N. Williams St. a week ago.

The city of Dayton also is looking for someone to redevelop the Gem City Ice Cream Co. property, located at 1005 W. Third St.

The city plans to demolish the crumbling commercial building and wants to attract a new high-quality project to the site.

Dillin also is stabilizing three other buildings in Wright Dunbar and has been working on a leasing plan, said Cheryl Dillin, chief brand officer with Dillin LLC, the managing partner of the food hall building.

A limited liability company controlled by Dillin paid more than $600,000 earlier this year to purchase multiple buildings with storefronts on the 1100 block of West Third Street.

The acquisitions included the previous homes of a pawn shop and a long-closed bistro.

Some people in the neighborhood have expressed interest in possibly becoming tenants and potentially could use the storefront spaces for retail or other services, Cheryl Dillin said.

"We do have some good plans and we're still looking for people, and we'd love to put a standalone restaurant in the corner — we've got a huge area for a patio," she told the Dayton Daily News. "It's a signature spot."

Cheryl Dillin also said it's possible they will develop the upper floors of the buildings into apartments, commercial spaces or co-working spaces.

She said her company's approach to development is finding out what communities need and then coming up with projects to fill those gaps.

Local leaders said the West Social food hall project faced significant hurdles related to COVID, cost increases and supply shortages. But they said it succeeded in large part because of strong partnerships.

Larry Dillin, CEO of Dillin, called the project a "labor of love."

"This isn't a Dillin project," he said. "This is a community-oriented project."

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Event update

West Social Tap & Table's block party scheduled for Friday night was just postponed due to weather concerns. Today's Go! section, which was printed before the postponement, includes a feature on the event. Please note, the party has been pushed back to Tuesday, Aug. 23.