Rust to riches? Ohio city’s fortunes set to rise with flying taxi startup

<span>Joby hopes to launch commercial flights in New York City and Los Angeles in 2025.</span><span>Photograph: Andrew Kelly/Reuters</span>
Joby hopes to launch commercial flights in New York City and Los Angeles in 2025.Photograph: Andrew Kelly/Reuters

For a decade, Dayton in south-west Ohio has fought to shed its rust belt past. New apartment blocks, hotels and breweries have cut into a landscape dominated by derelict warehouses and general industrial decline. But today, that transformation is shifting gears and taking to the skies.

A town that 120 years ago produced the pioneers of human flight the Wright brothers is set to build hundreds of futuristic flying taxis each year.

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It’s here in Dayton – rather than in its home state of California – that Joby Aviation is planning to manufacture its electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft.

Joby’s Didier Papadopoulos cites a couple of reasons for the company’s plans to employ up to 2,000 people at a $500m facility north of Dayton scheduled to open next year.

For one, it “has a tremendous history in aviation – it’s the birthplace of flight”, Papadopoulos said recently. Also, he remarked, “Ohio is home to a talented and skilled manufacturing workforce, and we expect to hire and train a mixture of both local and national applicants.”

The aircraft, slated to appear at the Olympics in Paris this summer, are expected by some to reshape not just air travel but the wider mobility industry. A host of startups and established companies have dived into electric flying vehicles in recent years, and the global eVTOL market is expected to be worth $1tn by 2040.

Joby has positioned itself as the “Uber of the skies”. Its aircraft have space for a pilot and four passengers and can reach speeds up to 200mph (322km/h); a November test flight went from lower Manhattan to JFK international airport in just seven minutes compared with the hour it can take by taxi or subway.

The company hopes to launch commercial flights in New York City and Los Angeles in 2025 and has signed a home-to-airport taxi service with Delta Air Lines.

With the Joe Biden White House committing billions of dollars to a new era of manufacturing, part of a wider move to reduce the US’s dependency on other countries for key technological products, much of that money is landing in the industrial midwest. Millions of dollars of government incentives have been committed to new semiconductor and other mobility projects in Ohio, Michigan and other states that are often more commonly associated with socio-economic decline.

For Dayton, a city that has lost close to half its population since the 1960s, the move could spark a major turnaround.

“Ohio was the first state to put together an advanced air mobility plan,” said a Joby liaison, Ted Angel, of the Dayton Development Coalition. “No other state had been leaning that far forward.”

Several miles east of Dayton, the Wright-Patterson air force base is the largest single-site employer in Ohio and boasts huge federal military research and development spending power that has, in turn, attracted a growing ecosystem of aviation and aerospace partners and startups to the area.

In nearby Springfield, a city of 60,000 people that has also suffered through years of manufacturing closures, the US air force has been helping build a new National Advanced Air Mobility Center of Excellence, which is expected to serve as a working home for aviation companies from South Korea and elsewhere.

“For a product like the one [Joby] is producing, there is both a defense and security market, and a consumer market,” said the Ohio State University’s Jennifer Clark, an expert in regional planning. “That’s pretty normal for the aviation sector. Almost every aviation company you can think of has both defense and civilian manufacturing. The Dayton area is very familiar with that.”

While the creation of thousands of new skilled jobs in economically challenged regions such as Dayton has broadly been welcomed, some in those communities are likely to bear a cost.

Known for years as a place with ample affordable housing, Dayton’s rising rental prices last year prompted residents to form a tenants’ union. In other cities, large manufacturing plants have fueled large property price increases.

Ohio’s state government is expected to deploy up to $325m in taxpayers’ dollars to help Joby build its facilities. Dayton’s Montgomery county has also proposed giving $1m to the company to help it with “development costs”.

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“There is a school of thought among economic development people that it is not the best use of taxpayer money to do these recruitment-retention-expansion deals with individual firms because it is risky,” Clark said. “Most of the research indicates that if you want to do sustainable economic development, you want to invest in your institutional infrastructure overall. But that’s the long game.”

And while Joby’s initial announcement suggested that 2,000 jobs would be created, that number is now expected to be closer to 1,200, with the potential to rise.

Still, for a region whose population has declined for decades, investment from companies at the cutting edge of mobility is seen as a welcome shot in the arm. The fact that the new plant sits atop a former US post office airmail facility is evidence of that.

Angel of the Dayton Development Coalition said a host of community colleges and universities around the region have adjusted by opening training programs to establish a pipeline of technicians for Joby and other aviation firms.

“I couldn’t count how many tours with schoolchildren we have done,” he said. “The [new] revolution of flight is happening right here.”