Hometown Turnaround: Bringing Life to a Dying Town

19 Jan, 2014

by Bruce E. Boyers

Disintegrating rural America has been an issue for the last thirty years, even immortalized in songs such as Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown.” It seems these days that everyone wants to leave Main Street in search of someplace better. Taylor Stuckert and Mark Rembert weren’t any different. These two young men had every intention of ditching their hometown of Wilmington, Ohio, until a devastating financial crisis struck the small town. The two recent college graduates then changed their plans and stayed home to help revive their local area. Through their project Energize Clinton County, they are bringing Wilmington very much back to life.

A Town Struck Down

Wilmington, historically an agricultural community, became a major player in freight in 2003, when DHL, one of the largest air cargo companies in the world, opened a major hub there—and created an unprecedented boom.

“DHL became the largest employer for not only us but six or seven surrounding counties,” Taylor Stuckert, co-founder of Energize Clinton County, told Organic Connections. “There were employees that came from over half of Ohio’s eighty-eight counties to work there. From 2003 to 2008 Clinton County actually experienced negative unemployment. Pretty much everyone in the county had jobs, and it was difficult to recruit new employees in the community; we were almost overemployed as a county.”

But as can happen when a community is overly dependent on a single economic driver, disaster struck. “In 2008, DHL announced that it would be closing its Wilmington hub and restructuring its domestic air shipping strategy,” Stuckert continued. “This was at the cost of nearly ten thousand jobs at the Wilmington Airpark, and it sent the community into a tailspin.”

Deciding to Stay

While disaster was striking Wilmington, Stuckert and his old friend Mark Rembert were in the midst of finalizing plans to leave their hometown to serve in the Peace Corps. “We both had this international development perspective on our minds; I was going back in and he was going to be joining for the first time,” Stuckert said.

However, with the economic collapse they changed their plans. “We saw a lot of nervous energy in the community,” recalled Stuckert. “There was a great deal of effort taken by local, state and federal representatives, identifying ways to build an economic response strategy to the crisis. But what we observed at the community level were a lot of individuals who had questions, concerns or ideas, and there wasn’t any forum for them to be involved. So we immediately saw an opportunity to begin a grassroots discussion on how this community could respond to this crisis and isolate the actual circumstances that led to it.

“In late fall 2008 we founded Energize Clinton County. The initial focus was engaging people at the grassroots level and getting them involved, really just to give them an outlet to disperse the energy that they had been building in response to the crisis.”

Stuckert and Rembert used ECC’s resources to take a good hard look at the underlying situation. “That’s when we began an in-depth evaluation of Wilmington’s economic development issues,” Stuckert explained. “We began using the metaphor of a local economy as a leaky bucket; you have revenues coming in and costs going out. During the DHL days, there was so much wealth coming into the community that these little leakages weren’t very noticeable. But once that spigot was turned off, the issue areas became very prevalent: the loss of small businesses over time; ‘brain drain,’ or the loss of young educated professionals in the community; and lack of local food. We were dependent on outside resources and weren’t leveraging the resources we had at home.”

Taking Action

Power: One of the first moves that Energize Clinton County made was to help the community take responsibility for its energy usage and creation. “We partnered with the University of Dayton on a program called Dropoly, which is a software game that helps homeowners understand ways they can be more energy efficient,” Stuckert said. “Then we worked with the city of Wilmington on developing a municipal 56-kilowatt solar field near its waste-water department, which has been making money for the city.”

Food: The town’s local food movement also went under the microscope. “The farmers’ market and local food were addressed at the beginning,” Stuckert related. “We’ve worked with building the marketing and outreach capacity of the farmers’ market, getting people in the community engaged in the value of local food and value-added agriculture. We’ve been able to provide infrastructure for EBT [Electronic Benefit Transfer], or food assistance, as well as for credit cards through the farmers’ market; that really expanded the opportunities for citizens throughout Clinton County. The farmers’ market has grown each year in terms of the number of vendors and people buying from it.

“We see the farmers’ market growing beyond just our community. We’re surrounded by three metropolitan regions, and our comparative advantage is agriculture. We have an opportunity to be a strong provider of local food to those metropolitan regions. We can leverage the skill that we have in agriculture in finding new areas of economic opportunity.”

Local Business: Waning local business has also benefited from Energize Clinton County. “We partnered with the Clinton County Regional Planning Commission on a Buy Local First campaign,” said Stuckert. “Initially it started out as a poster promotion effort, but then we took it to the next level by facilitating monthly meetings with local enterprises, getting them involved in a variety of different ways. These meetings prompted the building of communication databases and outreach with both consumers and businesses.

“Over the last five years the impact of our Buy Local First campaign has grown enormously. Recently we did a study with JP Morgan Chase and found that businesses involved in the campaign saw a discernible increase in trade and impact compared to those that weren’t. It was so successful that we received a grant from the USDA to start those programs in several other counties surrounding us.”

Energize Clinton County is also working to keep young educated professionals within the area. Its Clinton Community Fellows Program utilizes young talent to develop and enhance local business.

Lessons Learned

“We’ve learned that economic development is a very slow and steady movement,” Stuckert concluded. “It’s not something that happens overnight; crisis is what happens overnight. There is a distinction between economic growth and economic development, and development is the healthier approach in the long term. Growth is what we had with DHL—it feels positive, it feels great, but it’s vulnerable. So I think that’s how we’ve refocused our evaluation of economics in the community.

“Our overall mission is to demonstrate the power of local economic and community development efforts, especially for rural communities. We understand that each community has its own unique set of challenges, but also the opportunities, resources and abilities to respond. Our mission is to lead by example and to demonstrate that ability that communities have.”

For more information on Energize Clinton County, please visit www.energizecc.com.

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