Seventeen years ago, a 20-something Dave Dittenber sat inside his restaurant, Old City Hall, and reflected on the future of downtown Bay City.
"The potential for downtown Bay City is incredible," he told a Bay City Times reporter in 2001. "There is a buzz -- an attitude -- in Bay City that is helping us all."
That was before the Doubletree Hotel and Conference Center had even broken ground, and well before Dittenber would open two additional restaurants within a few blocks of each other and developers would be investing tens of millions of dollars to bring more housing options downtown and revive old buildings back to life.
Over the years, Dittenber has been synonymous with Old City Hall and his two other restaurants, Tavern 101 and American Kitchen.
But recently behind the scenes, he has built a new company that he says can add a critical element to Bay City's ongoing renaissance: High-tech jobs.
In April 2017, Dittenber, 43, along with a former Dow Chemical employee and a developer out of Germany, founded "4th-IR," an artificial intelligence company that's initially focusing on the healthcare industry.
For his efforts, Dittenber is being honored with the 2017 Entrepreneur of the Year award by Central Michigan University Research Corporation. He'll be presented his award at a ceremony in May. CMURC operates an entrepreneur hub at Uptown Bay City.
"Dittenber's focus on building his business and high-technology jobs within the Great Lakes Bay Region were key factors in this recognition," CMU President George E. Ross, who also serves as chair of the CMURC Board, said in a statement. "We look forward to watching his continued evolution in the health care industry."
4th-IR stands for the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
"We're truly now in this revolution where there's this fusion between digital and the physical," Dittenber said.
The company aims to take the troves of data that healthcare companies collect, but rarely use, and harness computer programming to quickly offer up solutions to issues.
"Healthcare is ripe for artificial intelligence," Dittenber said. "Thirty percent of all data is healthcare data, and of that, only 30 percent of is actually being used today."
Dittenber's company processes all sorts of data that allows healthcare professionals to do several things, from predicting diseases and outcomes to helping hospitals control costs. He declined to name any of the business' customers.
"Basically, we're connecting the dots to find answers that a normal human wouldn't be able to do," he said.
Dittenber said he hopes to hire additional employees -- specifically data scientists -- this year. The company will remain based in Bay City, he said.
"It's funny that when we meet with these other companies in Silicon Valley and other big cities, people always ask what's in Bay City," Dittenber said.
As the business grows, it could expand into other sectors, Dittenber said.
While Dittenber's new business is keeping him busy, he still has a passion for restaurants and plans to open a new establishment in the Great Lakes Bay Region in the next few years. He declined to comment on where that restaurant would be located.
He's also in the middle of a renovation project of his Old City Hall building on Saginaw Street. He was initially going to renovate the upper floors of the building for commercial space after a technology company from California showed interest in locating Bay City and bringing 40-plus jobs with it. The building cannot accommodate an elevator, however, which is required by the building code. Instead, the upper floors will be renovated into warehouse-style lofts. Dittenber can't disclose which tech company has shown interest in Bay City, due to a non-disclose agreement he signed, but said they're still interested in operating here.
Initial plans called for commercial space to house a tech company.
The restaurant space of Old City Hall will also receive a facelift, he said, including new lighting and more space in the bar area.
Much like 17 years ago, Dittenber has high hopes for Bay City.
"If we can get more jobs and more people downtown, this can be that big downtown in Michigan," he said. "We're really close."
(Photo credit: Jacob Hamilton, Mlive.com)