June 22, 2011 at 12:17 PM ET
AT SOUTH STREET COFFEE SHOP, WILMINGTON, OHIO -- When you visit a town of 12,000 people that recently lost 10,000 jobs, you'd expect to find a lot of things: boarded up homes, abandoned gas stations and empty storefronts to name a few.
What I found in Wilmington, Ohio, was something I didn't expect: opportunity.
Small town America has struggled with brain drain since the invention of the automobile. But as it attempts to rise from the ashes of an economic nightmare, this 200-year-old town may have discovered a revolutionary way to attract and keep its young people.
For decades, this small town in southwest Ohio served as crossroads for travelers shuttling between Kentucky and Detroit. It now sits at a crossroads of the American economy. Every day since the massive DHL package facility that employed the majority of Wilmington's residents closed in 2009, the town has had to ask itself: Will this disaster destroy us, or be our rebirth?
Wilmington has become America's small town in the past three years, a media darling because the recession hit here with almost unmatched brutality. Jay Leno has been here, and so have "60 Minutes" (twice), Rachel Ray and Glen Beck. It is the lead anecdote in a story about America's disappearing small towns.
There's good reason for that. The discussions taking place on Main Street or in the coffee house may be about local issues, but in the voices of Wilmington's faithful, you hear America talking.
"Guess I got to be a young man again and work graveyard shifts," said one man sitting at a table without coffee. He's not young.
But when you talk to people of Wilmington about their downtrodden state, about their grave misfortune -- and if you are rude enough to ask where the burned out buildings are -- people laugh.
"You're not going to find people crying on the sidewalks here," said Molly Dullea, who operates the General Denver Hotel in downtown Wilmington. Her brisk pilot crash pad business dried up when DHL ceased operations, but she replaced that with rollicking open mic nights and "draft" beer parties. "We are all taking care of each other here."
Even international media has descended on this place, sometimes labeling it a "ghost town."
Don't tell that to Roger Walker, who just opened South Street Coffee Shop down the block from the General Denver. He's living the American dream, leaving his job in Vandalia, Ill., to take the risk of a lifetime.
"The time was right," Walker said. So was the rent -- about one-tenth the price of similar space in a big city. "We came here and just fell in love with this town."
For Mark Rembert, returning to Wilmington was more like reconnecting with an old high school girlfriend after college. Rembert, who graduated from Wilmington High School in 2003, was working for an international PR firm in Philadelphia when the DHL disaster struck. After some soul searching, he moved home to try to help.
Within a few months he was running a nonprofit economic development agency and, soon after, became president of the Chamber of Commerce. National TV appearances followed, as did speaches at major conferences, including TED, and awards from places like MTV.
"If I stayed in Philadelphia I never would have had the opportunities I've had here. It would have taken years for me to get this far," said Rembert, 26. "And it's all became of Wilmington, and I couldn't be more grateful."
Other young people have picked up on the opportunities, too, helped by a program called Clinton Community Fellows -- Wilmington is in Clinton County. Students or recent graduates are matched with local businesses where they offer free consulting -- the students receive a stipend from a nonprofit agency at the end of the summer. These are no token work-study programs. Local shop owners are eager to hear any suggestions for saving their business, and the students bring with them fresh ideas like social media marketing.
"I've had responsibilities here I never would have gotten at in internship in Chicago or in New York," said Kelsey Swindler, who's working at a small publishing company. Until recently, she was known as the florist's daughter. "People want to try new things, they need to try new things. ... Who knew my Facebook knowledge would be so valuable."
Dessie Buchanan used to be known simple as "Dr. Buchanan's daughter" around town. Now, she heads one of Wilmington's most important ventures, as executive director of the farmer's market program. In this town, "buy local" isn't just a slogan, it's a lifeline. Buchanan persuaded farmers to move their market into the center of town and expand it to two days per week, and worked with the county so that social service food aid money could be used to pay for fruits and vegetables sold at the market.
"At first they didn't believe in my ideas, but each time something goes well, they listen a little bit more," she said.
Even Dullea swears that possibilities created by the closing of the DHL plant are a godsend -- the farmers market now takes place adjacent to her hotel, right before open mic night, which sometimes attracts 100 people – up from a dozen or so before the crisis.
"We are better off now," she said, without a hint of doubt in her voice.
That doesn't mean there isn't a whole lot of money missing from this town. The economic swing it has endured is hard to put in perspective. In 2004, German shipping firm DHL purchased what was then Airborne Express as an entree to the U.S. shipping market. Wilmington's massive airfield, built for U.S. military jets during the cold war, was the largest private airport in the nation, served as an alternate landing site for the space shuttle and was the perfect place to expand into the dot-com fueled shipping business. At one point, the city essentially had a negative unemployment rate, and DHL bused in part-time workers from counties all over Ohio to help sort packages.
In 2008, it all came crashing down. Mayor David Raizk said one in three households lost income when DHL left. The number of people receiving food assistance from county social services jumped from about 1,500 five years ago to 8,000 today, said Buchanan.
It's Kevin Carver's job to figure out how to fill up the 1,900-acre abandoned plant. There's no putting a lipstick on that pig. It's now a spooky graveyard of hundreds of DHL airplanes with engines removed, awaiting recycling. The airpark still operates, with a small airplane repair business and pilot training program. It lands six or seven jets per week -- down from 150 per day. But every week, a steady stream of investors come to kick the tires on the facility and its hundreds of massive loading docks. Some of its buildings are nearly brand new.
Carter, executive director of the Clinton County Port Authority, has one big thing going for him: before DHL left, it gave the airport to the city, which now controls its future. The town is currently studying the best route to redevelopment.
Mayor Raizk was raised at the town's Quaker-founded college, where his father was a teacher and athletics coach. The school's gym even bears his father's name. He's had to channel his dad's inspirational abilities many times during the current crisis.
"When you're at a small school, you may not have the best talent, so when you're losing by 20 points you have to really pull together and play for each other," he said. His job is far from over. Unemployment has stabilized, and local businesses say they've gotten used to the new normal ... getting by with less. But if the crisis were a 24-hour day, with DHL's withdrawal acting as midnight, Raizk says it'd be about 6 a.m.
"The sun is coming up," he said. "But there's a lot of work to do."
Like every small town I've ever visited, Wilmington has many outsized claims to fame. The city of Denver was named after former Wilmington resident General James William Denver, who also lent his name to the hotel. The town's old-style Murphy Theater opened in 1918, built by former Chicago Cubs owner Charles Murphy. They say he paid for it with World Series winnings from 1908 -- the last time the Cubs won (perhaps that's why there is not a newer theater. Some residents claim the banana split was invented here, too.
But if Wilmington can figure out how to survive and thrive in its economic disaster, and hang on to its youth in the process, it will have given America something far more remarkable than a new dessert.
"Can we take this crisis and make this community relevant? We want to be the community that inspires people across the country," said Rembert. "If we turn this around, we will be."