June 20, 2011 at 11:02 AM ET
In Washington D.C., with a full tank of gas -- Mark Rembert isn't just fighting for Wilmington, Ohio. He says he's fighting for the survival -- in fact, the very soul -- of small town America.
Rembert, 26, graduated from Wilmington High School in 2003 and moved away to find opportunity. But five years later, a different kind of opportunity emerged back home.
If you look at a recession scorecard, you'll see that Wilmington is the hardest-hit town in Clinton County, which is the hardest hit county in Ohio, which is among the hardest-hit states in the union. The basics are simple – Wilmington, a quaint place in southwestern Ohio not far from the Kentucky border, has 12,000 residents and, in 2008, delivery firm DHL closed its 10,000-job operation in the town's air park. But Rembert, who had opportunities in places like New York or Philadelphia, decided to go home to try to save his small town. He now heads the county Chamber of Commerce and is part of a development fund trying to attract new businesses to Wilmington.
Rembert’s battle is a fight you'll find all across America, as the nation's economic malaise settles into to its third year and the dreaded double-dip recession looms. At this crucial juncture in the U.S. battle to get out of the quicksand laid by the burst of the housing bubble in 2008, msnbc.com's Red Tape Chronicles is taking a second annual road trip across the country. We'll visit small, medium, and large towns, and listen to people tell their stories of trying to get ahead -- or stay afloat -- while the dual pressures of dogged unemployment and government spending cutbacks continue to turn the screws.
Extreme times bring out the best -- and worst -- of human nature. We'll look for both. There will be stories of inspiration, like Rembert's never-say-die spirit. There will be tales of shame and inhumanity, as we'll find in Chicago, when we talk to families who have spent more than three years trying to beat back the red tape involved in trying to save their homes from foreclosure. We'll see the reality of budget cuts in Pittsburgh, where mass transit cutbacks and parking meter price hikes are suffocating commuters just trying to make it to work on time. We'll meet a 94-years-young woman who still acts as a consumer advocate for the people of Michigan, and a 22-year-old in Omaha who's among the best in the world at warning kids about the dangers of identity theft.
At each stop during our two-week journey from Washington, D.C., to Seattle, we'll talk to people who have taken on their own version of Rembert’s cause.
"When the crisis hit, it was very personal," Rembert told me. "At that moment, the very future of our community was called into question. And we had to ask the hard question: Why do we care about the future of this place?"
In a way, Wilmington is lucky. It's calamitous economic fate brought the town outsized notoriety. The news magazine "60 Minutes" profiled it two years ago, and NBC "Tonight Show" comedian Jay Leno came to give a free concert and community pep talk. Since then, a steady stream of mass media has parachuted in, looking for Wilmington to serve a bit as a weather vane for the rest of small town America.
There are success stories -- a new downtown coffee shop just opened on South Street last month, and we'll meet the man who took the risk of opening a new business in a town rocked by job loss.
But it's unfair to place the bellwether burden on Wilmington. Even Rembert, whose infectious enthusiasm has managed to draw the attention of Fox host Glen Beck, admits he doesn't have many answers yet.
"Other towns call us looking for a formula they can apply to their town. We don't have one," he said.
But he does have plenty of ideas; ideas about self-sustaining communities that produce and consume what they need; ideas about the importance of having sense of place, and why Americans must return to understanding how "hometown" and "identity" are inextricably linked. He doesn't want every 21-year-old in every small town in America to face the choice of leaving home for opportunity in the city or staying home and facing economic suicide.
And besides, most people are stuck where they are now, anyway. With one-third of American homeowners "under water," the 1990s concept of extreme labor portability is basically dead. People can't move for job opportunities now because they can't sell their homes. In a new, forced version of community stability, Americans have to figure out how to be happy where they are. That might be a surprising stroke of good luck, Rembert says.
"There is a renewed sense of the fight for place in America," he said. "Small towns are a great place to start because, while they might be poor in resources, they are rich in social capital."
During the next two weeks, we hope to tap into some of that social capital, and to take the temperature of the America that lives between the coasts. I hope you'll come along for the ride.