Ben Baker’s rise to mayor of Dayton, Kentucky, started with a mural. After studying telecommunications, Baker moved from Latonia to Dayton in 2010, and he immediately fell in love with the river city of just under 5,700 and its connection to the river. It wasn’t long before he was tapped to join the city’s Main Street Board to help plan local music festivals. He and the board later petitioned for a nautical-themed mural to honor the city’s historic relationship to the Ohio River. When that plan was voted down by city council, he vowed to run for council himself (and secured the most votes). In the end, the mural got painted on Sixth Avenue, and Baker was elected mayor after two terms on council.
In his three years at the mayoral helm, Baker has overseen new growth projects for businesses and some notable legislation, including the city’s LGBTQ+ Fairness Ordinance in 2019 prohibiting housing and employment discrimination based on sexual orientation. “What this did was a couple things. A) it let all our neighbors know that we care about you, you’re welcome, we’re inclusive,” Baker says. “And B) it shows that Dayton is a very welcoming city.” Twelve Kentucky cities passed similar pieces of legislation following Dayton, including seven in Northern Kentucky—before Dayton’s act, Covington was the only local city to have such an ordinance (it passed in 2003). “We kicked that domino down, and [other cities] just started dropping them,” he says. Baker recalls seeing a city council meeting in Bowling Green where a young man studying to be a doctor at Western Kentucky University brought up Dayton’s recent ordinance. “There he was, 200-something miles away from Dayton, and he said, ‘I never even heard of the city of Dayton before they did this, and now I want to live there.’ ” Similarly, Dayton’s Smoke-Free Air Ordinance went into effect last November—the first city smoking ban in the region—and next-door Bellevue followed suit in February.
The city continues developing projects like Gateway Flats and Manhattan Harbor On the River, its extension of the Riverfront Commons biking, hiking, kayaking, and walking trails stretching across Northern Kentucky, and rehab on the Raymee Building. The 137-year-old structure has housed a post office, barbershop, a Kroger store, and even Dayton’s City Hall over its lifespan before it sat vacant for decades; the historic building will soon feature new retail spaces and affordable housing units. “Those types of revitalization projects and connectivity projects are going to make Dayton continue to grow,” Baker says.
The ordinances that arguably have garnered the most attention have simply been about local pride and having fun. Baker is a lifelong Reds fan—he’s plotted the course from the center of Dayton to home plate, a bit over 2 miles—and Reds Opening Day has been a city holiday under his administration to encourage parents to take their kids to the ballpark. In January 2023, the city renamed itself “Who Dey-ton” as the Bengals made their consecutive AFC Championship run. Bridging the gap and having fun with that “NKY vs. Cincinnati” sibling rivalry—and celebrating our similarities and differences—is frequently at the top of his mind. “It’s just such a great place, to be so close to the great city of Cincinnati but still have that Southern charm.”
With his experience as a member of the Northern Kentucky Chamber and the Covington Business Council, Baker has his eyes set on a bright future for this corner of the commonwealth and cites recent wins like Amazon’s hub and developments that connect folks back to the river. “I see growth in our fellow river cities in the same manner that we’re doing here in Dayton…I think the outlook is great for us in our region.”