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Wilmington --- A City That Didn't Give Up

Taylor Stuckert, Mark Rembert and Kelsey Swindler
Taylor Stuckert, Mark Rembert and Kelsey Swindler

It's date night for Randy and Debbie Riley. They're spending their Friday evening tucked into a booth in the General Denver hotel pub, as the snow piles up outside. It's a little break at the end of the week for Riley who has been putting in long hours ever since he was elected mayor of Wilmington, two years ago

RANDY RILEY: One of my campaign slogans was "I'm willing to do twice the work for half the pay". But, what I didn't realize, it was like ten times the work for half the pay (laughs)

He's the leader of a city whose streets are lined with foreclosed homes; city where pawnshops and check-cashing operations thrive, while small businesses sit shuttered.

William Cook and his wife Julie are having a different sort of date night a few blocks away at "Your Father's Kitchen", which serves up free hot meals to the needy. Cook says the Wilmington he knew as a kid seems like a distant memory.

WILLIAM COOK: There used to be a lot of people shopping, a lot of people going from place to place, nobody was hurting for any money, never really had a homeless shelter here in town, because we didn't need it.

Wilmington was ranked as one of the "100 best small towns in America" in a 1995 guidebook. That was due to the well-preserved, quaint architecture downtown, and the prosperity that came from the busy Airborne Express Freight shipping facility on the Southeast side of the city. In 2003, the international package delivery company DHL acquired Airborne to be its US hub. Five years later came a stunning reversal --- DHL announced that it was shutting down its US operations, leaving over 8000 people jobless in Wilmington and surrounding Clinton County.

WILLIAM COOK: I had a good job at Airborne. I loved that. I wished they'd come back.

William Cook is one of hundreds of people who come to Your Father's Kitchen every week for a free meal. The facility has seen some dramatic changes in recent times, says Director Allen Willoughby. Six years ago, it was only open twice a week, feeding maybe 75 people a day.

ALLEN WILLOUGHBY: When DHL pulled out, we tripled. And we've stayed that way. We feed 150, sometimes 200 a day, if it's the end of the month. And now we do it six times a week.

He looks around the large dining hall.

ALLEN WILLOUGHBY: There's just no jobs around here. It's tough. I suppose you could go to Cincinnati, Dayton, or Columbus, but our clientele --- half of them don't have cars, so they couldn't do that.

The Reverend Dean Feldmeyer heads the city's oldest church --- Wilmington United Methodist --- which celebrated its 200th birthday, this past year.

DEAN FELDMEYER: This county went from having the lowest unemployment rate in Ohio to having the highest unemployment rate --- we went from under four percent to over 15 percent. You could feel the sense of a sucker punch that took everybody by surprise. We spent something like six to eight weeks just walking around in a fog.

Once that fog lifted, the community began mobilizing to deal with the damage. Wilmington United Methodist and more than 30 other churches stepped-up to help keep the food-kitchen well-stocked. State and local officials convinced DHL to donate its abandoned airfield to the Clinton County Port Authority, which is trying to find new uses for what was once the largest private airport in the country. And since his election, Mayor Randy Riley has held regular planning meetings with a group of local leaders, including a couple of prodigal sons who never imagined they'd ever come back home.

TAYLOR STUCKERT: My name is Taylor Stuckert

MARK REMBERT: My name is Mark Rembert

28-year-old Taylor Stuckert and 29-year-old Mark Rembert have been buddies since childhood. After graduating high school, they both headed to the east coast --- in pursuit of higher education and careers, and later, both signed up for stints in the Peace Corps to do service work in Third World countries. But Rembert says, the DHL departure turned them around.

MARK REMBERT: All of the sudden, we found ourselves back in our home town, in the midst of this crisis, both of us with interests in economic development work --- although we thought that work was going to take place internationally. All of the sudden, we found there was this need and opportunity for us to do what we wanted to do, and serve our community in a time of great need.

Stuckert says their deliberations went beyond the goal of just trying to replace the thousands of lost jobs.

TAYLOR STUCKERT: In addition to thinking about the future, we started thinking about the past. How have things evolved to this point? Why were we even in this position to begin with?

One answer could be found in the growth of a large retail strip on the outskirts of town. Mark Rembert suggests that it promoted a misleading prosperity.

MARK REMBERT: There was this sense that Wilmington wanted to be the next suburban community. If you look at surveys --- even just prior to 2008 --- what people wanted was an Applebees and an Outback Steakhouse, but there was no "we want a great local restaurant or a great local shop".

TAYLOR STUCKERT: People were very disconnected from the community and what was actually taking place. Everyone had jobs, everyone was doing well…

…But they were losing local businesses and they were losing young professionals, who felt no personal connection to the burgeoning, faceless suburb that Wilmington had become. Rembert and Stuckert are the co-founders of a non-profit called Energize Clinton County, which is looking to turn that image around through such strategies as promoting a "Buy Local" campaign, helping area businesses and home owners save money through energy efficiency, and working to entice other young professionals back home.

When Kelsey Swindler graduated from college last year, she didn't see herself coming back home to Wilmington.

KELSEY SWINDLER: Being in a small town didn't seem like the right fit.

When it came time for Swindler to consider a career, the English major decided she wanted to go into book publishing.

KELSEY SWINDLER: Everybody had told me my whole life that publishing was in New York and Chicago --- mainly in New York, but that still seemed like a big jump. Chicago still felt like the Midwest, and felt like something that I could do.

Then, Mark Rembert and Taylor Stuckert hooked her up with a regional book publisher called Orange Frazer Press, based right there in Wilmington. And, one summer, she did an internship with the place, where she now works. But, so far, retaining the 23-year-old is a rare success story in a town that has bled young people in the last ten years.

SOUND: busy restaurant buzz UP & UNDER

In Wilmington, progress is measured in small steps these days. For Mayor Randy Riley it's hundreds of new jobs, instead of thousands.

RANDY RILEY: In my State of the City address, I predicted that in 2013 we would add 750 new jobs to the workforce in Wilmington. It's up to 618 now, we actually have another 20-30 jobs we haven't posted yet.

At the 200-year-old United Methodist Church, Dean Feldmeyer is also someone who takes the long view on the road to recovery.

DEAN FELDMEYER: It's just going to take a lot of hard work and it's going to take time, and there are going to be some broken hearts here that we're going to have to mend.

And although Allen Willoughby's food kitchen is still feeding hundreds of people every week, he says those people are getting fed --- thanks to a community that hasn't abandoned its own.

ALLEN WILLOUGHBY: You know, I don't want to paint a doom and gloom-type story, because it's been an awesome story, really, of unity --- of a city that didn't give up.

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