Down Town

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In 2008, air courier DHL left Wilmington, Ohio, sending the small city into a tailspin and transforming it overnight into a poster child of the Great Recession. But a funny thing happened on the way to economic Armageddon: The citizens refused to let their lovely town wither and die.

The mayor of Wilmington had heard the rumblings: DHL Express, the giant, German-owned mail courier, was in trouble. Its stateside expansion plans—growth that had swelled its employment to something close to 10,000 in a town of only 12,000—were not panning out. Competitors UPS and FedEx were not giving up customers and the United States economy was going south. But three times in early 2008 DHL executives had assured Mayor David “Davey” Raizk that all was well. So Raizk accepted an invitation to travel to Germany with his wife and represent Wilmington at the dedication of a new DHL hub in Leipzig. During the morning event, Raizk was proud that Wilmington merited a mention during a keynote speech. That afternoon—to use the word that’s become the most common descriptor of what transpired on May 28, 2008—Raizk was blindsided. In a teleconference call with investment analysts and an accompanying press release, DHL’s owner announced it would reorganize under a new U.S. partner. Its current partner—Airborne Express—operated from the Wilmington Air Park. Its new, hoped-for partner did not. “I knew immediately what the impact was,” Raizk says. “I said, ‘Oh, my goodness, that means they are going to close us up.’”

As anyone even vaguely familiar with the city of Wilmington knows, that’s exactly what happened. But it is what transpired after that—beginning that very May afternoon in an office building in Bonn, Germany, and continuing through the five years that have passed—that has changed the headlines. In 2008, Wilmington became the instant poster child for a recession-ravaged nation. Now, it is touting a turnaround that, while not yet complete, is bringing back jobs, battling brain drain, and helping to restore one of America’s most livable small towns.

To get to Wilmington, you hop on I-71 north, pass the clotted Fields Ertel exit, skip the roller coasters rising from Kings Island, and keep driving for half an hour. At Exit 45, head east on Ohio Route 73 for seven miles. You’ll see The Country Store, Sam’s Meats, Grandpa’s Pottery, and plenty of corn and soybeans on the way to town. Just past the “We Honor Our Champions” sign at the city’s edge, you’ll pass the bustling campus of Clinton Memorial Hospital, a homeless shelter/food bank, and the locally owned Books’N’More with its popular café.

It is Main Street that features the assets that won Wilmington an endorsement in Time in 1997 as a good place for suburban families, inclusion in a 1993 book touting The 100 Best Small Towns in America, and a role in the 1993 Neil Simon film Lost in Yonkers. While the east side of Wilmington is home to the kinds of big-box stores that have homogenized much of small-town America—Kroger, Staples, Lowe’s, Walmart, a five-screen theater, and all variety of fast food joints—it is Main Street and the surrounding downtown that provide the Bedford Falls feel. The Tudor-styled General Denver Hotel graciously welcomes visitors. The Murphy Theatre stages live shows. Ron’s Barber Shop promotes “quality cuts for $7.” The courthouse, a limestone monument to law and order, is straight from a John Grisham novel. Just beyond, before the journey down U.S. Route 22 to Walmart, is Wilmington College, the Quaker institution that dates to 1870—a picture postcard of academic aspiration with its manicured lawns and tidy red brick buildings.

But it’s what’s past the Walmart, in the southeast corner of town, that put Wilmington on the map and in the headlines five years ago. That’s where the 1,900-acre Air Park sits, and where DHL shattered Wilmington’s world.

Established in 1929 by local aviation enthusiasts, the Wilmington Air Park got its first hangar the next year. In the 1930s, American Airlines used the site for commercial flights. By World War II and the Korean War, the Army Air Corps had control of the space, naming it the Clinton County Air Field. In the 1960s, the Strategic Air Command took ownership. When the Air Force decommissioned the base in 1972, the city took ownership—a move that now-former mayor Davey Raizk calls “visionary”—and ran it as an industrial air park. In 1980, it transferred ownership to Airborne Express, the Seattle cargo delivery outfit; over time, Airborne’s explosive growth put hundreds of millions of dollars into the park, along with thousands of employees and 100-plus aircraft arriving and departing daily.

In San Francisco, meanwhile, three entrepreneurs had launched DHL, expanding it across the globe and, in the 1980s, squaring off against U.S. delivery giants UPS and FedEx. In 1998, a German logistics company called Deutsche Post entered the picture, acquiring the DHL shares that brought it full ownership by 2002. The next year, Deutsche Post bought Airborne Express and combined it with DHL.

Often lost in the brief history of the deal-making: Airborne was already huge—with about 7,500 employees living in and around Wilmington—when, in 2005, DHL shifted its U.S. operations from its hub at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport to the air park. Then DHL added more jobs: estimates of total final employment at DHL and its affiliated companies in Wilmington top 10,000. And the company spent millions of its own dollars and government dollars to expand its footprint in the city.

At first, the DHL years were good ones for Wilmington. The county unemployment rate was 3 percent. With its central location—an hour from Cincinnati, Columbus, and Dayton—workers came from 40 of Ohio’s 88 counties. And while many DHL employees were part-time sorters, they got full-time benefits. At its peak, DHL’s annual payroll at the Air Park was $257 million, and one in three Wilmington households had somebody working an Air Park job. In some cases, Wilmington had to turn away new business. “We had companies that went elsewhere because of [the lack of] manpower,” says Randy Riley, who took over as mayor in 2012.

Then came May 2008, when DHL, via Deutsche Post, said it wanted to hook DHL up with UPS and dump Airborne Express. Then came November 2008, when DHL said never mind; it would just abandon its domestic business all together. Then came January 2009, when DHL walked away from Wilmington and eventually returned to CVG to once again focus solely on international business.

From day one Raizk and a cadre of other local officials decided Wilmington would not be one of those “industrial towns with a padlocked plant that just sits there,” he says. The very afternoon Raizk learned of DHL’s flirtations with UPS, he met with the head of DHL’s U.S. business, John Mullen. Facing Mullen in Deutsche Post headquarters in Bonn, Raizk asked three questions.

Question 1: Is UPS a done deal?
Answer: No.
Question 2: What can we do to get you to stay?
Answer: Not much.
Question 3: If you leave, will you return the Air Park to local ownership?
Answer: We’ll put that on the table.

“Once I got a bite on that,” Raizk says, “I said, ‘I’m getting that Air Park back come hell or high water.’ And we did.”

Four days later, a Sunday, Raizk was back in his Wilmington office with then-Lieutenant Governor Lee Fisher and a group of local officials. They immediately created an economic task force of local and state leaders. Over the next year and a half, the task force or one of its committees met regularly, launching dozens of ad-hoc and permanent efforts to address the crisis, contain the damage, and put plainly, rescue Wilmington.

Kevin Carver was working for the state when DHL dropped its bombshell on Wilmington. At that emergency Sunday meeting in mid-2008, he represented the state’s Department of Development, where he supervised economic growth projects for nine Ohio counties. Very quickly, the DHL crisis began absorbing more than half of his work hours. As the task force’s Plan A (to convince DHL to stay) gave way to Plan B (to figure out how to replace the lost DHL jobs), Carver emerged as a key player. By mid 2010, the city asked him to take over the management duties of the Air Park, as executive director of the Clinton County Port Authority. He took the job that December, drawn by the immensity of the crisis and what he considered the “incredible leadership” of local officials.

“When the news hit, I was impressed with how quickly people took off their political hats and put on their let’s-get-to-work hats—and left Democratic and Republican politics at the door,” Carver says. Entering the late stages of a 30-year career in public administration, Carver, who turns 63 this December, says he was less interested in working for wealthy suburbs and “more drawn to problems that needed to be solved.”

He found plenty of problems in Wilmington. As the DHL exit played out, unemployment shot up to 19 percent. Banks soon began foreclosing on dozens of home loans. The myriad issues triggered by loss of work and loss of home—hunger, depression, divorce, domestic disputes, even suicide—all grew. “A lot of them got very, very despondent,” says Keith Hyde, executive director of Workforce Services Unlimited, a nonprofit with outplacement services that assisted some 3,000 former Air Park employees. “When you send out 500 résumés and get five interviews, you kind of get tired of that—and you go home and sit on the couch for a long time.”

Wilmington’s coffers felt the pain, too. Income from the city’s 1 percent earnings tax fell from a 2009 high of $7 million back to 2005 levels of about $4 million a year. The city stopped hiring and granting raises—a freeze it hopes to end next year—and embraced austerity, putting a hold on improvements to streets and nearly every other public property.

Ironically, Wilmington’s reputation as the face of the recession ended up working in its favor. The endless media attention—The New York Times, CNN, USA Today, Jay Leno, Rachael Ray, Glenn Beck, 60 Minutes (twice) were among the dozens of outlets that covered DHL’s story—kept the politicians interested. And the political attention—from the governor’s office to the Oval Office, with two Congressional hearings thrown in for good measure—kept the focus on the crisis and possible solutions. “I wanted to stay on the front page,” Raizk said. “When you get pushed back to page 10, everybody forgets about you.”

At the Air Park, Kevin Carver put his energy into creating a functional Port Authority, which was essentially a shell when he was hired, with no staff, budget, or operating procedures. Then he turned to the central task: Figuring out how to redevelop a sprawling facility that was once the engine driving the local economy.

It took nearly two years of negotiations, but in 2010 DHL agreed to donate the land and buildings to the Port Authority. The second part of the equation—redeveloping the site—is underway, but it’s a slow process. Carver’s got a 400-page blueprint, in the form of a formal redevelopment plan, that lays out seven broad goals ranging from the ideal tenant mix to possible partnerships to marketing strategies. But he acknowledges that some of the recommended “action items” could take as long as 10 years to play out. The runways may be cleared for takeoff, but nobody’s counting on a tailwind.  

In other offices across town, other Wilmington leaders got busy on their own action items. At the Clinton County Regional Planning Commission, Executive Director Christian Schock, a graduate of the London School of Economics, worked with a start-up nonprofit called Energize Clinton County (ECC) to create grassroots projects to boost business. Among them: a “buy local” campaign with an online subscriber base that now exceeds 4,200; a “Clinton Community Fellows” program that draws local sons and daughters back home as business interns; and, taking advantage of the region’s agricultural roots, a Farmers’ Market that has doubled in size over the last three years.

Molly Dullea, owner of the historic General Denver Hotel on Main Street, is reaping the benefits. The former Dayton nurse and her husband Mark bought the 85-year-old hotel in 2004. When DHL left, the Dullea’s room rentals plummeted 80 percent, with beds once used by overnighting pilots sitting empty. “We got through it day by day, robbing Peter to pay Paul,” she says. “[But upkeep] costs enormous amounts. There are only so many steaks you can sell and rooms you can rent.” Dullea pulled through the crisis on the generosity of locals who continued to visit her pub and restaurant. The Farmers’ Market helped, too; set up in a parking lot adjacent to the General Denver, it has drawn shoppers and diners downtown, and its local produce and meat is featured on the hotel’s menu.

Meanwhile, Energize Clinton County’s Fellows program attracted some interest. After her sophomore year at Wittenberg University in Springfield, Kelsey Swindler was planning a summer internship instead of returning to Wilmington to work for her family’s greenhouse. “I didn’t see myself coming back necessarily,” she says. But during winter break, she met the founders of ECC and  changed her mind—for good. She ended up in the first class of Fellows, in 2010, working for local publisher Orange Frazer Press. In 2011 she came home again, serving as a Fellow for four different businesses. Now 23, she’s on the Orange Frazer staff, handling publicity, marketing, editing, and other tasks. While many of her college friends lusted for the big city, she’s come to value a wide circle of young Wilmington professionals who are building careers in their hometown. “I feel very fulfilled,” she says.

Marcy Hawley, who created Orange Frazer in 1987, calls Swindler and her peers the “transformationals”— 20- and 30-something digital natives bringing their skills and energy to bear on a town that badly needs them. At the top of her list of the most transformative are the two buddies from Wilmington High School who created ECC.

Mark Rembert came home first. A 2007 graduate of Haverford College, Rembert returned while waiting for his Peace Corps assignment in Ecuador to begin. About a month later, his friend Taylor Stuckert also returned. Stuckert was in the Peace Corps, too, but the Bolivia office where he was serving had been closed because of political unrest. Rembert and Stuckert decided they would take Peace Corps assignments later that year and help with the unfolding hometown crisis in the meantime. “When we started Energize Clinton County, we thought, ‘Oh, we’ll do this for a few months and then head to the Peace Corps,’” says Rembert. “Then it became six months and then it became a year.

“When we were growing up, it was [considered] a failure to come back to Wilmington,” he adds. “The idea was if you could leave, you should leave.” Now, at 28, he is co-director of ECC, executive director of the Wilmington Chamber of Commerce, and a homeowner.

Stuckert was soured by that stigma, too—initially. After his 2005 graduation from Butler University he moved to New York and then left for the Peace Corps. Even as a native son (his family has ties to Quakers), he believed “you didn’t really choose to live in Wilmington; Wilmington chose you.” After running ECC with Rembert for five years, he says, “I want to be here. I find pride in this community.”

Marcy Hawley, meanwhile, does her part for Wilmington business growth: She and her seven employees have published 450 titles from their downtown office over the past 26 years. In her spare time, as chair of its board of trustees, she helped keep the Clinton Memorial Hospital in town, overseeing its sale to a Tennessee-based operator when it threatened to close in the wake of DHL’s exit. Originally from Boston, Hawley,  who is 65, has made Wilmington her home since 1978 and is forthright about the town’s issues. She says conservative voters hold the overwhelming majority of the power (in 2012, Clinton County went 66 percent for Romney and only 32 percent for Obama); women have too little power (none serve on the County Commission); and drug abuse and illegal immigration need more attention. In the late 1970s, Wilmington was a place where it was easy for young people with energy and ideas to get involved, she says. Now she thinks it may be again. “I think the future of this town is the kids coming back.”

In late summer, a sign in the front window of city hall read “4-2-2.” (At press time in early October, the number had grown to 550.) That was the number of new jobs created or promised, year to date, in Wilmington. Mayor Randy Riley’s prediction is that by the end of the year, “We’re going to be over a thousand.”

The former head of respiratory therapy at Clinton Memorial Hospital and seven-year county commissioner, Riley works to keep his finger on the town’s pulse. He aims to visit at least one local business a week and hands out his cell phone number along with his business card. On Fridays, he wraps up date night with his wife with a trip to Kroger, so he can chat with local citizens. And while he considers his predecessor Raizk a friend—albeit one he unseated in 2012—he believes a “silo” mentality had slowed economic development by the time he took office. To counter that, he assembled an economic development work group, both to reduce duplication of effort and improve communication. “My goal was to say, ‘OK, once a month we’re going to just sit down and talk. We can be open and honest with each other,’” Riley says. He thinks it’s working. One example: Port Authority officials weren’t wild about an idea from convention and visitors bureau staffers to rent out unused parts of the Air Park for recreational events. But they hashed out their differences during one of Riley’s meetings and the Air Park began hosting car races last year, and may add a Tough Mudder human obstacle course to its calendar.

“We do it because we understand the impact on the local economy,” Carver, the Port Authority exec, concedes. “It’s not directly jobs, but people come to these events, they stay in hotels, they eat at the restaurants, they buy various things at local stores that push pretty significant amounts of money into the local economy.”

The same goes for many of the business initiatives in Wilmington over the past five years. The Fellows program, the Buy Local push, the Farmers’ Market, the task force and the work group—none of those can fill the employment hole left by DHL’s departure. At the Air Park, only 550,000 square feet of space is currently in use, out of the 2.9 million available. But city leaders are convinced 2013 has been the city’s turnaround year, and they are directing all their energy at attracting and growing diverse companies that will stay put. Nobody would turn away a large single employer, but they don’t see that as likely.  With DHL, “we were losing economic diversity,” says the Planning Commission’s Christian Schock. Now, he says, “we are not going to put all our eggs in one basket.”

So Wilmington is inching toward Riley’s prediction of a thousand new jobs a handful of hires at a time. As the economy has improved, existing companies have started growing again. Polaris Industries—which makes snowmobiles, ATVs, and the sort of recreational vehicles that stopped selling when money was tight—is adding 100 positions, and has purchased a couple of industrial facilities near the Air Park. And a wholly owned subsidiary of Air Transport Services Group called AMES is pledging 259 jobs—and adding its fourth hangar at the Air Park. Another ATSG subsidiary, Air Transport International, is promising 65 new local jobs, largely from sites outside of Ohio. Carver says interest in Air Park space—in the form of legitimate lookers, not just “tire kickers”—was higher in the first half of 2013 than all of 2011 and 2012.

State and local officials especially like to crow about the ATSG growth given its role in the DHL story. ATSG—which now ranks as one of the top two employers in Wilmington, along with the national trucking outfit R&L Carriers—was created in 2003 when Deutsche Post combined DHL and Airborne Express. Thanks to ATSG’s other businesses, the Air Park never went dark and officials didn’t have to start development plans from scratch. “The groundwork got laid early on so that as opportunities came, we were prepared for them,” Raizk says.
 
Visiting Wilmington in May to announce state tax credits for many of the growing employers, Governor John Kasich sounded almost like a preacher. “I know the Lord is smiling today,” he told a crowd of 90, adding that “the sun is rising again in Wilmington” and “we will be restored here in this town.”

Wilmington residents seem to share Kasich’s enthusiasm, relieved to have survived the DHL crisis and gratified jobs are returning. Steve Brown, a plumber born and raised in Wilmington, says he is juggling “an overwhelming amount of work” this year, having lost two-thirds of his revenue and four of his seven employees after DHL left. “We’re actually making some money again.” Michael O’Machearley, a former DHL shuttle driver, has been able to upgrade his machinery and travel to trade shows to promote his custom knife business. Featured in many of the news stories about DHL, he says the exposure has not made him wealthy but has helped him make a decent living. “I’m operating from a small shop in my backyard,” he says. “I haven’t lost my house. On my little block, there are probably eight or nine houses in foreclosure. And a lot of those can be traced directly back to people at DHL.”

Having finally stepped back from the brink, some are investing in hope. At the Air Park, Carver is waiting to hear if the Federal Aviation Administration will pick his facility as one of six U.S. test sites for unmanned aerial vehicles (otherwise known as drones), a contract that could be a big job-booster. Denise Stryker, the director of the Clinton County Homeless Shelter, hopes new jobs will kick-start contributions to her nonprofit, one in high demand since 2008. Tony Nye, Clinton County’s extension agent for agriculture and natural resources, is optimistic that 2013’s good growing conditions for corn and soybeans will protect agriculture as the county’s top industry. And David Hollingsworth, Wilmington’s city auditor, is banking on new jobs to bring new dollars.

But the pain of DHL’s exit has not yet been relegated to Wilmington’s history books. Unemployment in Clinton County remains relatively high—at 9.9 percent in July, the 10th highest level in Ohio. Keith Hyde continued to get calls for outplacement assistance midway through the year. “We are definitely still seeing a lot of people who need shelter,” says Stryker of the homeless facility. Clearly, some former Air Park employees haven’t yet found  their footing.

One is Sandy Gilton, who lost her corporate purchasing job at a DHL partner firm (Astar Air Cargo) in July 2009. Her then-husband had left Astar earlier for a position in the auto industry when rumors of DHL’s demise took hold and the couple decided one of them should find alternative employment. Then he lost his auto position, so the couple opened a clothing consignment shop. Gilton joined him when Astar let her go, and the shop at the corner of Main and South streets did well for two years. But when the city launched a sidewalk replacement plan, the shop’s foot traffic dried up and the shop died.

“Four months of no business and me twiddling my thumbs,” Gilton says. “You can’t operate a business that way.” In the past five years, she’s survived a job loss, business failure, and a divorce. By the end of the summer, she was relieved to land a position in Dayton. So for her, the legacy of the DHL departure lingers on in a long commute.  

In Cincinnati, five years after DHL returned to CVG, the shipping giant celebrated its booming international business with a June ceremony to mark the completion of a $105 million expansion.

In Wilmington, Mayor Riley has a wish list for his next two years in office: Add more lighting and benches downtown; develop nearby Sugartree Street into an entertainment district; fill the Murphy Theatre every weekend; expand a bike/hike trail; build a new YMCA; launch a program to provide college tuition or student loan forgiveness to in-need graduates of Wilmington High School.

Even if Wilmington lands 1,000 jobs this year and next year and the one after that,  the city coffers won’t be full enough to grant all of those wishes. But Riley thinks the city’s quick response to the DHL crisis and its constant push for new jobs has put some of them within striking distance. In mid-2008, he points out, “Clinton County and Wilmington had become the tip of the spear for the recession. We had about a five- or six-month head start.” His hope today is: First in, first out. “Let’s be like the phoenix rising from the ashes.”

It’s certainly possible. Wilmington may not be back atop the list of “best small towns in America” anytime soon, but if there’s an award for most resilient, it’s a contender.  

Originally published in the November 2013 issue

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