Global Detroit: Welcoming immigrants equals economic impact

This week, Detroit’s getting a visit from two of the leaders behind Dayton, Ohio's "Welcome Dayton" plan, designed to make, and to re-brand, Dayton as welcoming to all--and especially to immigrants.

The plan is not the brainchild of a think tank or an economic development agency, an immigrant rights group or a consortium of powerful city leaders. Rather, it arose directly from a set of community conversations to answer the questions: What benefits have immigrants brought Dayton in the past? If we were intentional about welcoming them, what benefits could they bring us now? It’s a question Detroit should be asking as well.

It seems that the perfect storm of awareness congealed in Dayton last year, with a police chief who was working to make his force more equipped to respectfully deal with diverse immigrant cultures, a (first-generation American) City Commissioner who had been pondering the question of immigrant-friendliness for some time, and some work into housing conditions by the Dayton Human Relations Council, which found that, in addition to Hispanics, several other immigrant groups were living in marginalized housing conditions.  

This combination of efforts resulted in four community conversations last spring, convened by the Human Rights Council and attended by over 100 community members, and designed so that no single agenda dominated and no outcome was predetermined, to answer the questions I mentioned earlier. 

Participants couldn’t help but consider that, without an influx of immigrants, Dayton’s shrinking population would be declining even more rapidly (the same is true in Detroit). Or that areas like Dayton’s East Third Street were standing out as rare enclaves of success in small-business ownership (Mexicantown, anyone? Or our own independent civic enclave, Hamtramck?). 

Citizens who participated in the conversations determined that with a concerted effort to roll out the welcome mat, their town could attract even more immigrants to land and raise their families in Dayton--and start businesses.

So they developed the multi-faceted plan (you can download it here), which includes supporting immigrant entrepreneurship, encouraging cross-cultural programming at arts and community organizations, and adopting "immigrant friendly" law enforcement policies throughout Dayton.

Sherri Wierzba, a resident who began attending the community conversations independently, but then came to represent some official involvement of the Downtown Development Partnership said: "As the plan started to get organized and recommendations began to emerge, it the business and economic development pieces match our work at the DDP. Especially with the focus on building on the economic assets Dayton already has, like our international market place at East Third Street, and using our great building stock."

The plan was completed in July 2011, and adopted by Dayton’s City Commission in September and October. When asked about the politics behind the City Council endorsement, Tom Wahlrab, Executive Director of the Human Relations Council, said, "It was controversial--but we had engaged the Commissioners in the process. As fellow citizens, they had each participated in at least one of the community conversations. I think they saw the support this plan had from the community--that it had actually been written by the community." Wahlrab noted that the only three individuals who spoke against the plan’s adoption, on the basis that the plan would specifically attract or serve undocumented immigrants, were actually from outside of Dayton.

Since the plan’s adoption, a number of Dayton institutions have publicized their efforts to be immigrant-friendly. "Whether they were doing these things before or have started them since Welcome Dayton, they now see these actions as aligned with something greater, as part of a movement," says Wahlrab. In addition, a task force of residents and city staff has been convened to focus on making the plan’s recommendations a reality.

Certainly one of the most gratifying of Welcome Dayton’s impacts has been the outpouring of Dayton love that Welcome Dayton has provoked from around the country. According to Wahlrab, "We’ve had a lot of people write or call to tell us that they’ve never been more proud to be from Dayton as when they heard news about Welcome Dayton."

Tom Walhrab and Sherri Wierzba will be speaking at a Global Detroit event this Thursday evening. Immigrant Economic Impact: Dayton’s plan for Rust Belt revitalization by welcoming immigrants will be held at the Detroit offices of Miller Canfield, 150 W. Jefferson, from 5-7 p.m. on February 9.  The event is free, but we ask for the favor of an RSVP email sent here.

Sarah Szurpicki works at the New Solutions Group, a Detroit-based public policy consulting firm. NSG serves, as part, as the staff for Global Detroit, an economic development effort centered on globalizing Detroit, partly by welcoming immigrants, funded by the New Economy Initiative for Southeast Michigan.
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