Reversing the Brain Drain to Save a Home Town

After the largest employer in southwest Ohio laid off thousands, two young friends got to work.

Wilmington, Ohio Mayor Randy Riley points to placards showing the number of new jobs in the city. (National Journal)

When Mark Rembert and Taylor Stuckert left Wilmington, Ohio, for college, they didn't think they'd be back. "When you grow up in a small town, the conversation, the discourse is — I want to get out of here," Stuckert says. They both joined the Peace Corps after graduation, accepting positions in South America.

But then the largest employer in seven southwest Ohio counties ceased its local operations, and the 2008 financial crisis hit. Forget the Peace Corps — there was development work to do at home. Rembert and Stuckert came back and founded a nonprofit called Energize Clinton County. In the years since, they've learned that strengthening community ties can help get a small town back on its feet.

Some 9,500 jobs were eliminated when package-delivery company DHL shut down its Wilmington distribution hub, including layoffs at ABX Air, DHL's local partner. The combination of local layoffs and the national economic downturn devastated Wilmington, a town of some 12,500 in a county of 41,800 people. By 2010, unemployment in Clinton County had soared over 19 percent, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

Small towns across America share Wilmington's vulnerability. They're more likely to depend on a single employer or a single industry, and if that employer downsizes, rebuilding can be a struggle. Rural areas also typically have fewer business or philanthropic resources to help develop new sectors. Lower levels of educational attainment can limit job opportunities for blue-collar workers.

Back in 2008, Rembert and Stuckert — then 24 and 23, respectively — didn't know a whole lot about rural development. But they teamed up the Clinton County Regional Planning Commission and started organizing community meetings. Through some trial and error, they determined that the best use of their skills and resources would be to help support local small businesses. Indeed, ask someone in Wilmington about ECC's most successful initiative to date, and chances are they'll highlight ECC's Buy Local First campaign.

Business owners needed a better way to market themselves to survive the downturn and to better compete with Walmart and the shopping malls of Cincinnati, Columbus, and Dayton. "It's rural Ohio, so a lot of our small businesses don't have any sort of Web presence," Rembert says. ECC set up a website highlighting local businesses and conducted an e-mail and social-media campaign, including videos that allowed business owners to tell their story.

Creating a bond with customers made a difference. One Buy Local First event during the holiday season generated $150,000 in local economic impact, a 2012 JP Morgan Chase study found. Thanks to a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, ECC is now expanding the campaign to six other Ohio counties.

A second success story was the Clinton Community Fellows program, a 10-week summer internship for college students. To participate, local businesses identify a change they'd like to make, and ECC matches them with a fellow who might be able to help. One fellow, a business student, helped a medical-equipment company develop a strategy for entering the scrubs market, says Chris Schock, executive director of the Clinton County Regional Planning Commission.

"We've had young people who never would have thought of coming back to the community get job offers and now live in the community full time," Rembert says. In Wilmington, there's a pressing need for young professionals. Manufacturers are hurting for a lack of young, skilled workers, and city leaders fret that an exodus of college-educated people will sap the town's strength over the long term.

ECC's initiatives aren't about to replace the jobs lost at DHL. "This is a planning program. We're creating a foundation for future development," Schock says of the nonprofit. Improving energy efficiency, supporting local businesses, local food, and young professionals are different facets of a long-term strategy, he said.

Traditional economic development efforts — such as encouraging major companies to relocate to the area — will do more to return Clinton County to full employment. Wilmington Mayor Randy Riley expects new and expanding manufacturing, distribution, and logistics facilities in the area to create about 750 jobs this year.

Local leaders are working to bring new tenants to the Wilmington Air Park, deeded to the city by DHL, and Riley sees an opportunity in commercial drone technology. "I would like a manufacturing center for [unmanned aerial vehicles]," he says.

Not everyone in Wilmington is enthusiastic about ECC's efforts, which are supported by the Clinton County Regional Planning Commission with help from foundations and the Wilmington-Clinton County Chamber of Commerce. Schock tells naysayers that ECC's greatest successes are intangible: a sense of dynamism and a source of positive news coverage during a difficult time.

As for Rembert and Stuckert, they've realized that economic development requires more than building a collection of solar panels or encouraging local businesses to offer coupons.

"Communities are not built in three-to-five year projects. They're built by generations," Rembert says. The two men initially assumed they'd work in Wilmington for a few years and then move on. They've since realized that, if they're serious, energizing Clinton County will be their life's work.