Wright Brothers Airplane Factory
An Effort to Redevelop the Factory Complex
By Christine Negroni, The New York Times
DAYTON, Ohio — On a chilly fall afternoon, 4-year-old Antoine Alston and his 8-year-old sister, De’Asia Liggins, waited for the bus with their mother on the western side of this city. Behind them was an abandoned factory of historical significance, but that was news to the children.
One hundred and thirteen years ago this week, an airplane created by the Wright brothers made the first powered flight. Seven years later at that factory off West Third Street, the brothers built the first factory mass-producing airplanes for sale. Now, as part of a plan to renovate the factory, the children of West Dayton may be learning a lot more about the city’s most famous sons and their world-altering invention.
The original goal was simple: Save the two gable-roofed brick buildings from demolition by having them added to the National Park Service’s five-stop aviation trail in the area. This has turned into a multimillion-dollar, 54-acre development project, and one that by necessity has come to echo the Wright brothers’ inventiveness and determination.
Two factories were built by the Wrights in 1910-11 for airplane manufacturing. Only about 120 planes were manufactured there, as Wilbur Wright died unexpectedly in 1912 and Orville sold his share in the business in 1915. In the seven decades that followed, automobile parts were produced in those two buildings and three more that were added.
Dayton, a manufacturing city once known as the city of a thousand factories, started losing jobs in the industry about a decade ago, said Ford Weber, the city’s director of economic development. The downturn and housing crisis of 2008 took a major toll on the city, with an increase in mortgage foreclosures. The damage of that time remains apparent today in the West Dayton neighborhood. Nearly every block around the factory has shuttered or has collapsing homes and buildings.
In 2009, the National Aviation Heritage Alliance, a nonprofit group based in Dayton, dedicated to preserving sites important to the history of flight in the area, persuaded Congress to incorporate the factory and the 20 acres surrounding it into the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park of the National Park Service.
The group wanted to preserve the site after the last owner of the buildings, an auto parts manufacturer, moved out and declared bankruptcy. Tony Sculimbrene, executive director of the alliance, said he feared the factory might be bulldozed. When the designation was given, though, it did not include money for the rehabilitation, and the alliance had to find ways to finance it.
“I specifically remember saying to myself: ‘How are we going to do this? How are we going to save it without the Park Service?’ ” Mr. Sculimbrene said. “That’s when we switched from it being purely a historic project to it being an economic development project.”
Home Avenue Redevelopment, a brownfield developer that had acquired the property out of bankruptcy, razed all but the Wright brothers’ factory complex. It removed hazardous materials and made the land shovel-ready with $3.5 million from the city and state, and $2 million that was part of the sales agreement between the owner — DPH Holdings, which does business as the auto parts manufacturer Delphi — and the buyer.
Early next year, the property will change hands again when the alliance buys it from Home Avenue Redevelopment. Then the Park Service will occupy the factory buildings, giving it what Dean Alexander, superintendent of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historical Park, calls “40,000 square feet of blank canvas.”
“It’s a challenge to take an old factory and turn it into something that’s exciting for the general public to come visit,” Mr. Alexander said. “The Park Service is always looking for new ways to engage younger generations and more diverse populations.”
What will fill the remaining three factory buildings adjacent to the historic Wright Brothers plant is still being discussed. Classrooms focusing on science, technology, engineering and math education, or STEM, are one option.
“Our country has become such a STEM country and the Wright brothers were all of that,” said Amanda Wright Lane, a great-grand-niece of the brothers who lives in Columbus and supports the alliance’s plan. “Kids could come in and see what that meant 100 years ago.”
The nearest neighbor to the park has already been determined; the Dayton Public Library is building a $7 million branch across the street.
“Having a public library with a national park, it doesn’t get better than that,” said Timothy R. Gaffney, spokesman for the alliance. “The library will draw people from around the neighborhood to the site. The factory will draw people from around the world.”
Finding businesses for the 34 acres of industrial property just outside the Park Service remains a challenge.
Mr. Gaffney noted that some companies in light manufacturing and advanced aviation material production see the Wright brothers’ legacy as relevant to their business. “I’ve been in touch with some business, they want to associate their brand with the birthplace of the aviation industry,” he said.
The rosiest projections forecast as many as 500 new jobs with an average annual salary of $40,000 coming to the area, said Shelley Dickstein, the Dayton city manager. “Whether the market delivers what we’d like to see, there is the real question,” she added.
Jean Brown, of the nearby Westwood neighborhood, said she hoped that rejuvenating the factory would benefit its residential neighbors. She noted that after the Wright-Dunbar Interpretive Center, about two miles from the factories, was complete and became a stop on the aviation trail, housing in that area improved. “They got so many new buildings up there,” Ms. Brown said. “They say they’re coming this way.”
Outside Dayton, the project has prominent advocates in David McCullough, the author of the 2016 biography “The Wright Brothers,” and Patty Wagstaff, an air show pilot. Both made videos in support of the development plan after touring the dilapidated factory.
The impact of aviation is not confined to the last century, or even to people who fly frequently, Ms. Wagstaff said.
“Every weekend I fly, and I see how it can change lives,” Ms. Wagstaff said, “but if you don’t fly, how do you know how special it is? That’s what restoring the factory for the public accomplishes.”