DAYTON, Ky.- From the steamboat era to modern floodwalls, the Ohio River has played a key role in the development of this Campbell County town.
"It grew out of the steamboat era, and a lot of the people who lived in Dayton when it was first organized were carpenters and other artisans who built the steamboats and worked on them," said Charlie Tharp, a Dayton real estate and insurance agent who's known as the town's unofficial historian.
In less than a century, however, the river that had helped create the little town turned against it.
Floods in 1884, 1913 and 1937 - the latter affecting 80 percent of the city and prompt ing residents to take shelter in the garages of the former Wadsworth Watch Case Co. - caused many of the companies in the once-booming town to move elsewhere. By the 1950s, many residents, weary of constant flooding, moved out of the town as well.
Many think Dayton's salvation came with the completion of a floodwall in late 1981.
The $17 million floodwall - paid off 10 years early last year - "paid for itself (during the March) flood alone," City Administrator Dan Groth said.
"This last flood, (the water) would have gone all the way up to Fourth or Fifth Street and just completely flooded out hundreds and hundreds of homes and businesses. Without the floodwall, Dayton would be hard-pressed to grow."
Since the completion of the floodwall, the city has remodeled its city building on Dayton's main thoroughfare; witnessed the opening of a new high school on Green Devil Lane (formerly Jackson Street), where rundown homes once stood; has seen construction of a new administration building for Dayton Independent Schools near the riverfront; and development of an industrial park at its eastern edge, an area that once was among the first to flood.
Today, 11 businesses (with a 12th soon to move in) occupy about one-third of the industrial park's 4ï-block area, helping boost the city's economy, Mr. Groth said.
Recently, the city has fielded a number of inquiries from small-business owners in Newport who are being displaced to make way for a $40 million aquarium, Mr. Groth said.
"We're trying to make room for as many of them as we can in our industrial park," he said. He added that the city hopes to get a federal grant so Dayton can clear a bigger area in its industrial zone for potential businesses.
Development of Dayton's riverfront remains a top goal of the city. A five-year plan adopted this year calls for forming a committee to interview commercial Realtors and decide the best ways to develop the riverfront.
Aside from the Anchor Inn at Dayton's eastern boundary, the city has little development along its riverfront. City officials recently extended their lease with a development group that wants to put upscale condominiums and a restaurant at the site of the former O'Fallon's Landing restaurant.
Other ideas in Dayton's five-year plan call for taking an aggressive approach against blight and housing code violations, getting a new football field for Dayton High School, and landing grants for neighborhood development and law enforcement. The plan also calls for more recreational opportunities for people of all ages, especially youths.
Many of those issues already are being addressed.
This month, Dayton City Council voted to put a bond issue on the ballot of the next regular election to finance construction of a youth center next to the high school.
The 6,000-square-foot center is designed to address the age-old complaint by Dayton teens that there is little for them to do. Many have come under fire for loitering on street corners, especially in the business district.
In May, the city and Brighton Center received a $127,590 federal grant to track crimes committed by youths ages 13 to 17, especially those involving alcohol or drugs.
Roger Slagle, Dayton's director of recreation, said the city's summer recreation program serves about 75 to 100 youths a day through organized camps, weekly field trips, and baseball, softball, volleyball, crafts and board games. However, he added, "There are probably a 100 more out there we don't see."
Mr. Slagle said organizations including the First Baptist Church of Dayton, which runs a free summer Bible school program for children ages 2 to 13, and Lincoln Elementary, which runs a summer program for children, help solve the problem of what to do with youngsters during the summer.
"The whole community really has pitched in a great deal by getting all these programs going and doing a lot to improve the community," Mr. Slagle said.
In response to another goal in its five-year plan, Dayton formed a board late last year to hear appeals and assess fines for rundown properties.
"We've still got a long way to go," said Mr. Tharp, who operates a business on Sixth Avenue. "I think the central business district is the No. 1 priority that needs attention. Almost one out of every three storefronts is boarded up or closed."
Said Mr. Groth, "That's next up on the agenda."
Dayton plans to hire a coordinator to oversee downtown revitalization and apply for grants to have a historical survey done of the city, as a first step toward creating a historic district, he said.
"All that will be coming together within the next two years," Mr. Groth said.
For many, Dayton is symbolized by the World War I era monument, erected at Sixth and Berry avenues.
For others, the town is symbolized by less tangible markers.
"I think Dayton has the potential to be a Mount Adams or a MainStrasse," said 44-year resident Sandy Poe. "It's still kind of a quaint little river town, and we have everything here we need to function: a Super Value, a gas station, our bank and our mini-industrial park." Now a mother of two teen-age sons, Ms. Poe, 45, remembers her midnight flight from her former Third Street home with her parents and younger sister, as floodwater lapped against their trailer in 1964.
Today, Ms. Poe, who has worked in Dayton for 27 years and is active in civic affairs, said much of the town's community spirit and willingness to help others can be traced to the floods they've weathered.
"Everybody was scurrying (to escape the flood of '64), but when they got their families out, they went back to help that last person who was still struggling," she said. "You just didn't leave anybody behind. Today, you still see people pitching in to help others."