DAYTON, Ohio — The 140-acre Paul E. Knoop Jr. Prairie in Dayton has become something of an inkblot test.
Some see a field that could be repurposed for commercial use to bring a much needed economic boost to a struggling Rust Belt city. Others view it as an irreplaceable ecosystem that is part of Dayton’s identity.
The prairie, which is owned by the city, is at the center of a broader debate about airport land use nationwide. And in a city that has been roiled this year by a Ku Klux Klan rally, tornadoes and most recently a mass shooting, this smoldering controversy over a parcel of land is pitting two traditionally friendly constituencies — conservationists and the environmentally progressive Dayton city administration — against each other.
The struggle over the land has been jarring for Mr. Knoop, who brought in seeds from one of Ohio’s last remaining patches of native prairie to plant his namesake preserve in 1995 near Dayton International Airport. He thought the prairie would be permanent, but economic forces have been pressing against the tall grasses.
“The prairie was planted, and everyone loved it,” Mr. Knoop said.
At the time, the airport’s use of prairie grasses was seen as an innovative and inexpensive way of keeping troublesome Canada geese out of flight paths.
“Geese do not like prairies, they like to be able to see their predators, which is why they like golf courses and lawns,” said Alexis R. Faust, executive director of the nearby Aullwood Audubon Center, a 200-acre preserve affiliated with the National Audubon Society. She said the consequences of developing the prairie would be “catastrophic” to the area’s watershed.
Over the past 24 years, the preserve has become a beacon of biodiversity, filled with hundreds of native plants, including big bluestem prairie grass and Indian grass. It is also the headwaters of Wiles Creek, a meandering stream that finds its way into Aullwood. The creek stays 68 degrees year-round, Ms. Faust said, never icing over in the winter and providing cooling relief in the summer.
For 12 years, Aullwood leased the Knoop Prairie land from the City of Dayton and maintained it. But in 2007, the Federal Aviation Administration changed its guidance to state that prairies within 10,000 feet of a runway could pose a “wildlife hazard,” and the lease with Audubon was not renewed. The prairie, however, continued to flourish.
While the prairie was thriving, the airport’s fortunes were moving in the other direction. Low-cost carriers like Frontier and Southwest were enticed to Cincinnati’s more spacious airport 50 miles south. Ticket prices at Dayton International went up and departures cratered. Passenger departures at Dayton International were 906,003 in 2018, compared with 1,465,480 a decade earlier.
Cargo tonnage has seen a similar slump. In 2006, a busy UPS hub was shuttered, stifling a significant source of cargo revenue.
The dip in revenue from declining passenger traffic has been offset by the development of some parcels of land near the airport for industrial use, something city officials called crucial to the area’s economic stability.
The airport’s proximity to the Interstate 75 and 70 interchanges makes the area attractive to businesses in a national economy increasingly dependent on speed.
“The city, county and business community have looked at the crossroads of I-70 and I-75 as a strong asset in our region,” says Shelley Dickstein, city manager of Dayton. The interstates intersect less than five miles from the airport.
“You can get to about 60 percent of the country’s population within a day’s drive from the 70-75 nexus,” Ms. Dickstein said, adding that the city has created a logistics and distribution strategy that would promote the crossroads to drive development.
She expressed surprise at the opposition from Aullwood, saying that the preserve and the city have been partners on many projects in the past and that the city’s environmental studies do not portend the damage Aullwood and others fear. Five Rivers MetroParks, a system of popular parks and preserves throughout surrounding Montgomery County, has also publicly opposed developing the site.
But Ms. Faust said there were plenty of other areas around the airport for development. “I am not against economic development and jobs, those are important,” she said. “I think we can have both.”
In many ways, Knoop Prairie is an island within an island, and that adds to the complexity of real estate transactions involving Dayton International Airport, which sits on a 4,500-acre site detached from the city but still considered Dayton.
Complicating matters, the neighboring city of Union has filed a legal challenge claiming that the land, which Dayton obtained from Union in 2016 via a boundary adjustment, cannot be used for anything other than airport operations.
The dispute has delayed development plans for the parcel, already causing one suitor, General Motors, to walk away, costing the city 700 jobs and millions in tax revenue, city officials said.
Dayton is countersuing Union for title slander and vows to continue exploring development options. The benefit to this complication, Ms. Faust said, is that prairie proponents and the city have more time to reach a consensus.
Mayor Nan Whaley of Dayton said the city would take all measures to protect the watershed, but vowed that the site would be developed.
“We are going to develop that land,” she said. “We bought the land to develop it; that is our core mission.”
She added that Union officials had a decades-long history of picking fights with their neighbors. “If they can’t have something, they don’t want anyone else to have it, either,” Ms. Whaley said. “We are confident we will win this fight.” The Union city manager, John Applegate, did not return calls for comment.
Terry Slaybaugh, a former Dayton airport director who promoted prairie planting during his eight-year tenure at the airport, said the opposition from environmental groups caught him off guard.
“I’ve seldom, if ever, been involved in a dispute like this where communications have totally broken down, and that is unfortunate,” he said.
But Mr. Slaybaugh said there was a more significant issue that small-market airports across the country were struggling with.
“Small-hub airports like Dayton have taken a hit in the past decade with consolidations and mergers, so other forms of economy like creating jobs and revenue have to be looked at,” he said. “It is vital to small airports.”
Mr. Slaybaugh said that over the past three years, the airport had been able to recover from its passenger slump by leveraging its land. Recent projects have included almost three million square feet of development, bringing 3,000 new jobs as companies like Procter & Gamble, Purina and Spectrum Brands have opened facilities.
“For a city to experience this type of growth when most cities don’t have the property and opportunity is really positive,” he said.
Determining the value of industry versus nature can be difficult and costly, but the needle points toward Dayton’s needing higher-paying jobs and production, said Kevin Willardsen, professor of economics at Wright State University in Dayton, who has studied the effect of industry on the environment.
Unemployment in Dayton is 4.3 percent, only slightly above the national average of 3.7 percent, but many of the higher-paying manufacturing jobs lost during the last recession have not returned. Dayton’s population fell to 140,640 in July 2018 from 166,179 in 2000, according to the United States census.
“Dayton is an outlier,” Professor Willardsen said, in that it is one of the only major metropolitan areas that is shrinking while most have grown. “Anything that can reverse the trend would be good for the area.”
But growth comes at a price, Mr. Knoop said.
“Money and jobs are a hard thing to argue against, but many times, you are possibly losing a resource that is irreplaceable,” he said. “It seems to me, they could find another place around the airport property. Once the open space is gone, it is gone forever.”