What do you do when you are a Midwestern town of about 12,000 people and your main employer pulls out, taking 10,000 jobs with it?
You circle the wagons, call home the kids, embrace change and trade in 20th Century industries for 21st Century industries. And hope for good luck.
The Story of Small Town America
If you drive anywhere in America off the interstates that connect the large cities, you’ll find hundreds of small towns struggling with an uncertain future. At best, small factories are slowly converted into loft apartments; at worst, they stand as empty shells. The towns with a thriving college or government offices have some good jobs. Some survive on tourism. But nearly all of them live in fear that their one big employer could dry up and blow away.
Wilmington, Ohio faced this seemingly apocalyptic reality eight years ago, right as America was waking up to its new economic reality. About an hour outside Cincinnati, Wilmington became the poster child for a declining America and the ravages of the Great Recession — its main employer vaporized, nearly overnight.
The story of Wilmington is the story of small-town America today.
German-owned shipping company DHL had set up shop at a World War II era air strip in town, with a grand plan to compete with FedEx and UPS in the U.S. shipping market. The jobs were simple — often part-time package sorting — but paid well, and critically, offered European-level benefits. Some area farmers would work 20 hours per week at the airport, securing health benefits and work their land the rest of the time.
But in November 2008, at the height of the recession, DHL gave up and pulled out. Folks wondered if Wilmington would survive. Its plight became a national story. TV personality Glenn Beck even hosted a TV show from there. Donations and good will poured in; but neither do much to get an economy going again.
For real help, Wilmington and the surrounding Cling County called on its youth. Two Peace Corps “veterans” led the charge – they were barely old enough to drink, but they were optimistic enough (naive enough?) to take over the town’s chamber of commerce and come up with a rescue plan.
A Green Evolution
Taylor Stuckert was 23 at the time, and was just back from Bolivia, after the Peace Corps had evacuated him from there due to the unrest in the region. Mark Rembert, 24, had accepted a Peace Corps post and was set to go to Ecuador. At the last minute, he decided to move home instead and applied his training to Wilmington. The dynamic duo set out to use their Peace Corp skills to help save the flicker of light that was their home town and formed a group called “Energize Clinton County.” Soon, Rembert ran the Chamber of Commerce, while Stuckert got involved in the county planning commission.
I first met them in 2012, four years after the bad news arrived and TV cameras left. Their challenge had sunk in. At the time, things had stabilized, but Wilmington’s charming downtown was all but vacant. A struggling coffee shop here, an antique store there. But the energy of the 20-somethings who had returned home to help Rembert and Stuckert was contagious, and I had a feeling good news would arrive. I promised myself I would return to see it.
I kept that promise this month, as part of my annual road trip across America. Over late night-beers and an early brunch at the General Denver Hotel on Main Street, I got my wish.
Here’s the all-too-short version of this story: The old DHL airport is now roaring to life again, but with a high-tech twist. In March, Amazon announced that it was flying planes in and out of the air park as part of its sort-of-secret package delivery “airline.” Right now it’s only creating a fraction of the traffic that DHL planes did, but there’s the potential for much more.
The journey from DHL takeoff to Amazon arrival was hardly without turbulence, however, and Amazon hardly solves all the region’s problems. Still, it represents a remarkable turnaround for a region that was all but left for dead by some.
“We are starting to see things moving in the right direction,” Rembert said, who only recently gave up his spot as Chamber of Commerce president to finish his Ph.D. He still works at Energize Clinton County. “But if you look at the number of jobs today compared to prior to the recession, we are still way down.”
A History Worth Saving
Like many small places in America, Wilmington has a huge personality that gives it an out-sized influence on the rest of the country, and a history that rivals a big east coast city. Its glorious old-time downtown Murphy Theatre was built with money made by native Charles Webb Murphy from a sale of the Chicago Cubs to the Wrigley Family, right after the last time the Cubs won the World Series. There’s a Wilmington-Washington D.C. pipeline, too — Sam Stratman, professor at Wilmington College, worked for Republican Congressman Henry Hyde during the Clinton era, which once made Stratman the “spokesman” for the Clinton impeachment hearings. Stratman, like many who grew up here, is now back to help set Wilmington aright again.
The General Denver hotel is the town’s Cheers, where folks meet to debate the future of the country, or the county, or how to pay for this year’s county budget shortfall. Over eggs and ribs, I met farmer Jon Branstrator. His farmland has been in family hands since 1823. Now, he grows berries, asparagus and pumpkins. When the peach crop was ruined by frost this year, he quickly planted cucumbers — a neat metaphor for Wilmington’s situation.
“This is a great little town, and it’s worth saving,” he said.
Saving it began with Rembert and Stuckert setting up an organization called “Energize Clinton County” and working to have the area declared a Green Enterprise Zone, to capitalize on momentum around environmentally-friendly industries. It also put the area in a position to compete for federal grant funds. Meanwhile, local officials started working to help smaller firms grow, so the area would never again be so dependent on one industry.
“A lot of them were doing well but were overshadowed because DHL was such a dominant presence,” Rembert said. “We were overlooking firms with 300 to 600 workers.”
Smaller manufacturers are doing much better now, he said — particularly pharmaceutical-makers, who have flocked to the area in part thanks to low labor costs and high quality of living.
“We are seeing work force participation come back,” he said. “There are positive signs across the board.”
Still, the DHL shadow hangs over the city.
“The story of DHL haunts us today,” he said. “Those were very unique jobs — part time, with full benefits. Low skill. They were jobs you could work and live in Wilmington and have a decent quality of life. Now we have employers who are saying we want you to work seven days a week, and the wages and benefits not the same, and the skill set is higher.”
Problems for Older Workers
Things are harder still for older, former DHL workers who didn’t pick up skills that translate into 21st Century jobs. That’s one reason Amazon is welcome in the region; it would provide some of those sorting-style jobs that former DHL workers can excel at. On the other hand, those jobs clearly have a limited shelf life, and will immediately be threatened by automation that pushes wages lower.
That makes the Seattle firm — like any large employer — a double-edged sword.
“Part of me says we have a workforce suited for one industry, so maybe we should say how do we bring that industry back? But having one dominant industry can be risky,” Rembert said. “I’m not sure we want to go back through that again.
That’s why Rembert is hard at work trying to prevent calamity from the next, inevitable, recession. His Ph.D. is designed around the problem of “regional resilience” during economic downturns.
Right now, in addition to encouraging more Green industries like solar energy, Rembert and crew are also focused on encouraging tech entrepreneurship. His recent pet project is working to open a “maker space” in Wilmington that will bring together manufacturing industry veterans, 3D printing experts and others to help investors quick-start prototype development.
Much work remains, however. Over late night beers, a group of Wilmington leaders concede that their biggest fear for the future is NIMBYism (Not in My Back Yard), augmented by the megaphone of social media. There are already complaints about air traffic noise, of course. But that’s just the beginning.
Here’s an example of their frustration: bike trail development is a popular way to attract young, affluent tourism dollars to a region, and planners are hard at work trying to complete a trail that would connect Wilmington to its big-city neighbor, Cincinnati. But each time a public hearing on the project is held, critics accuse government officials of “stealing” the land for the trail (it’s already public land), and rumors that spread on social media have to be beaten back.
One way or another, there’s no beating back the future. The question remains: Will small towns like Wilmington be able to make the adjustments, or will they become entirely dependent on their local college for good jobs and culture?
Every four years, clever political observers say, “As Ohio goes, so goes the nation.” And here, I’m proud to say I’ve written a feature-length piece about a place in Ohio and not mentioned the presidential election until now. But forget politics. It’s worth paying attention to Wilmington’s plight because it’s certainly reasonable to think as Wilmington goes, so will small-town America.
I’ll be back again soon; hopefully in less than four years.
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Image: Bob Sullivan
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