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A Year Ago, 'Gem City Shine' Brought Dayton Back From The Brink

August 25 was the one year anniversary of the Gem City Shine concert. The concert was a gift to the Oregon District from comedian Dave Chappelle. It was his response to the horrific mass shooting that happened just weeks before.

But the performers Chappelle brought up on stage were just the highlights. Gem City Shine had a small army of people working behind the scenes. WYSO Reporter Chris Welter spoke with some of the people who helped make Gem City Shine a success.

“It was very clear for me and for the city we weren’t going to do anything that the business members didn’t want.”

Just days after the mass shooting, Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley got an urgent message from comedian Dave Chappelle.

Chappelle lives just outside town, in the village of Yellow Springs. And for years, he’s been throwing some really big events - like his Juke Joints celebrating Black music and culture. Or this year’s socially-distant comedy shows. Chappelle’s parties have been pretty legendary in Dayton for a pretty long time.

But this time, Chappelle was saying he wanted to do something big to help the people of Dayton. Nan Whaley went to the Oregon District Business Association first.

“And so we had this meeting. I remember it was in the chamber and I said to the business association, well Dave Chappelle has come forward on this." She said, "Do you want this? Do you want to do this?”

Natalie Skilliter is co-owner of the Corner Kitchen restaurant, and the President of the Business Association.

“My initial reaction and on behalf of the Oregon District was, oh, I don’t think that we’re up for it. I think that everyone’s pretty exhausted and just trying to get by and take care of themselves and each other." Skilliter said, "And then it was, well, Dave Chappelle wants to do something.”

Chappelle never lets on who his guests are going to be. But they’re usually pretty big names. A couple of weeks ago, Questlove showed up behind a local vintage shop to play an impromptu concert. And Comedians like David Letterman and Kevin Hart have performed at local shows.

Chappelle would take care of the guests, but everything else was up to the city. If they were going to pull Gem City Shine off, there was a lot of work to do.

“It was incredible, I mean, literally, we didn't have time to second guess.”

Sandy Gudorf is President of the Downtown Dayton Partnership. Sandy and Natalie from the Business Association threw themselves into the event. They needed to recruit and manage 350 volunteers. They needed to work with vendors to provide fences, bathrooms and beer. They had to prepare all the marketing and public relations. And, they had to do it all while keeping everything a secret from the public until just a few days before.

“We were very, very sensitive that we didn't over burden the businesses. And that was the big challenge." Gudorf said, "Were they ready emotionally, mentally, physically to do the event”?

The morning of Gem City Shine, Skilliter left her house in the Oregon District early to start setting up. As she walked through the streets, she could hear a Stevie Wonder song playing from the stage.

“I thought that they were just playing a tape playing a C.D. just to check their levels." She said "But, I realized it was Stevie Wonder on stage doing a soundcheck so that at that moment I was like, oh, my gosh, Stevie Wonder is 100 feet away from me right now playing this beautiful concert just for me, I was like the only one out there.”

All that hard work paid off.

And later that night Wonder played the song again. But this time. it was for tens of thousands of cheering people, all pressed together on Fifth Street. Chance the Rapper, Jon Stewart and Teyana Taylor performed, too.

Issa Ali, one of the Dayton locals who performed that night, said that night was like nothing he’d ever experienced before.

“Man, it was so beautiful. It was probably one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen." He said, "The vibe was a lot of love. There was a lot of love and a lot of healing.”

“I remember folks commenting OK, like this is Dayton, this is Dayton that we love and know,” said Mayor Whaley.

After all the work she did putting Gem City Shine together, in the end, Natalie Skilliter didn’t even get to watch the show. She spent the whole concert coordinating the beer trucks and all of the volunteers. But as the show wound down and people started heading out, Natalie saw something that she couldn’t stop thinking about.

“There were strangers on the street just kind of collecting garbage in their arms, just like swooping up the garbage and helping to clean the street. And that, to me, was probably the most meaningful moment of that night when all these strangers were just coming together to rejoice in our community and to support one Another to pick up after actually one another, even if it wasn't their garbage. I just think that that was just really special.”

Environmental reporter Chris Welter is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Copyright 2021 WYSO. To see more, visit WYSO.

Jess Mador / WYSO
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley speaks to members of the media Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, outside Ned Peppers bar in the Oregon District following a mass shooting nearby on Aug. 4.
Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley speaks to members of the media Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019, outside Ned Peppers bar in the Oregon District following a mass shooting nearby on Aug. 4.
Jason Reynolds / WYSO