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Towns On The Edge - What Happens When A Third Of The Jobs In One Town Disappear?

The close-knit community of Wilmington is proud of its sports teams
The close-knit community of Wilmington is proud of its sports teams

SOUND: Airfield sound sneaks up UNDER

In the middle of sleepy southern Ohio farm country sits a miracle of modern technology. It's said to be the largest private airport in the nation. It boasts a 300 million dollar facility for sorting packages. It's a huge place, taking up 2,200 acres.

RON RILEY: My gosh, there's parking for 150 planes. There are buildings to maintain any kind of aircraft that you could pull in there.

Ron Riley loads and unloads planes at the DHL package delivery facility at the Wilmington Air Field and he says it has brought prosperity to the region. But, then he pauses.

RON RILEY: It's just hard to watch it wash away so fast.


On November 10th, DHL announced plans to close its North American air hub in Wilmington. After January 30th of next year, the company will no longer make domestic deliveries in the U.S., which means that nearly 8,000 people who work at the Wilmington Air Field will be out of a job.

MAYOR RAIZK: We believe this is the largest single point job loss scenario in the country.

That's what federal officials have told Wilmington mayor David Raizk , but he says those numbers don't begin to tell the potential impact of the DHL shutdown. Raizk says the thing that really worries him is the ripple effect of those job losses throughout the community.

MAYOR RAIZK: What about the restaurants, what about all the other service industries? One in five small businesses could fail in this area. One in three households in our community has an airpark employee in it. How are they going to do Christmas for their kids? How are going to keep their mortgage up? That's the ripple effect.

SOUND: Chickens UP & UNDER

And that ripple extends to the outskirts of town where farmer Kent Pickard has seen how the Air Field transformed Wilmington and surrounding Clinton County.

KENT PICKARD: I remember back into the 60s and 70s, the building of a house in town was front page, a whole spread on the house. Before it finally shutdown a year ago, it was nothing to have a development start-up a day.

This past year's mortgage meltdown has slowed that pace considerably. And now, with the prospect of thousands of people out of work, the real estate market isn't likely to turn around any time soon.

KENT PICKARD: Right now, this whole area is dead in the water. I mean, every part of it. And we don't know how it's going to wash out.

There are some success stories in Wilmington. The Technicolor media production facility on the south side was transplanted from Hollywood years ago. Not far away, flags flap outside the high tech casting factory of Ahresty Wilmington Corporation --- a Japanese-owned auto parts manufacturer. Facilities manager Fadi Al-Ghawi has worked here for 20 years.

FADI AL-GHAWI: I am an immigrant. I came in 1976 to seek an education in the United States and it is my home.

But, he's concerned about his home. Facilities like Technicolor and Ahresty employ hundreds of highly skilled workers, but they can't make up for the thousands of jobs that the Wilmington Airfield provides.

FADI AL-GHAWI: It was a good opportunity for a lot of people, especially people without a college education. Sorting boxes, etc. doesn't take you to get a degree for that, but the pay was good. Some people worked there for 28 years…25 years…and all the sudden (snaps his finger) vanishing?

Al-Ghawi is president of the local branch of Habitat for Humanity --- a Christian ministry that builds houses for families who can't afford to buy a new home. Al-Ghawi says they average about three homes a year, although lately their funding has taken a hit.

FADI AL-GHAWI: Losing DHL? I tell you right now, I probably lose some volunteers and I probably lose some funds for the affiliate. This is one non-profit, there are many in town.

The impact of losing DHL extends beyond the Wilmington city limits. Ten miles away in the little town of Sabina, freight handler Ron Riley lives in a modest home with his wife Robin. Riley has been working at the Wilmington Air Field since 1984, about the time he got out of high school. And he knows many people with a similar story.

RON RILEY: This house is affected…

His hand gestures to his next door neighbor

RON RILEY: …the house on this side is affected…the one across the street… the next one down, across the street. There's such a saturation of people that work at that air park, in this community, you just can't figure out where are all these people going to work? Where are these jobs going to come from? It's going to be tough, probably going to be a lot of homes empty around this part of town.

Like many small town mayors, David Raizk's job at Wilmington City Hall is only part time. When the town was established nearly two hundred years ago, there really wasn't a need for a chief executive to monitor day-to-day business. Raizk says he's putting in long days at City Hall, lately, and a lot of sleepless nights. And when he takes off his mayor's hat and goes to his other job, the problems of Wilmington stay with him. David Raizk sells cars at a local Lincoln-Mercury dealership.

MAYOR RAIZK: Our business is poor all over the country --- that's no secret. But, you layer over that, many of our customers don't know if they're going to have a job. They're not going to be in the market for a new car, used car, or anything.

Last week's announcement of the Wilmington Air Field closing set into motion a flurry of activity in Columbus and Washington. Federal and state officials are searching for ways to cushion the blow of so many lost jobs. If DHL sticks to its announced schedule, they don't have much time to come up with a plan.

RON RILEY: January 30th, they don't pick-up packages anymore. There will be nothing going through Wilmington Ohio.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.