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In 2008, my hometown of Wilmington, Ohio was in the midst of an economic hurricane. The small rural town was in the early stages of confronting the loss of more than 8,500 jobs after DHL Express announced that it would be ending its operations at the Wilmington Air Park.
Like many young people from small, rural communities, Mark Rembert and I (co-founders of Energize Clinton County) had left Wilmington immediately after high school. We went away to college and then worked and lived on the east coast in Philadelphia and New York. In the fall of 2008, when the departure of DHL began, we both found ourselves crossing paths in Wilmington. I returned after my Peace Corps program in Bolivia was evacuated and encountered Mark, who was home preparing to depart in February of 2009 for his Peace Corps assignment in Ecuador.
It took no time for us both to acknowledge that the majority of people we encountered were stirring with energy—energy behind new ideas, reflections and the emotions that this transition was producing. We too begin to sense something stirring—it was the thought of losing our community; a place that carries more than just jobs, but also the traditions and the history of many generations prior.
So we both decided to forgo our plans to leave again, and chose to stay to focus on trying all we can to help the place which raised us—the community that gives us a place to which to return.
We formed Energize Clinton County to re-define local development efforts in response to DHL’s departure. Rather than relying solely on a traditional, “top-down” approach to re-development, ECC is working with the community to see a more rooted approach, which utilizes the people, businesses, institutions and assets that sustain the life of the community.
Through collaborative efforts, ECC has helped to light a spark in this economically-injured community. We worked with the City of Wilmington to establish the country’s first Green Enterprise Zone to provide incentives for green development, and to build local capacity in material and energy efficiency. In a joint effort with the Clinton County Regional Planning Commission, we built a Buy Local First campaign that now has over 160 participating businesses and thousands of committed consumers. We also formed the Clinton County Green Alliance, a consortium of environmental groups in the county, assisted in finding a new, vibrant home for the Farmers’ Market in downtown Wilmington, and continue to work on building local and regional demand for local food. Just this Spring, we helped establish a new program, Clinton Community Fellows, which seeks to reverse local brain drain by providing stipends to bright, talented college upperclassman and recent grads from the area to work for 10 weeks in the summer with area businesses and non-profits.
Energize Clinton County has helped fuel a movement to begin addressing issues that plague many rural small towns and cities. These issues include: energy and material efficiency; agricultural communities unable to source food locally; persuading high-income earners to live here rather than just commuting; and—arguably the most devastating—the loss of young achievers, who have no interest in investing in the place that invested in them.
ECC’s approach focuses on the goal of preserving the historic and traditional integrity of this place. The organization believes that when communities understand and agree upon this goal, they will naturally begin addressing the economic issues, and in turn, continually grow the unique energy of place.