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.