After the DHL shipping hub in the town announced it would be closing in 2008, leading to the loss of over 9,000 jobs in a community of only 12,000 people, Mark Rembert and Taylor Stuckert knew they had to do something to help their hometown make it through the prospect of tough economic times.
"It brought the community to a reckoning point where we had to ask what the future was going to look like," said Mark. "We decided we'd devote our energy to helping our community and develop a new model for small towns across the country."
The two reconnected in Wilmington after Taylor returned from a Peace Corps trip and Mark was just about to leave on his own Peace Corps venture. The pair realized their time was best spent in Ohio and Mark decided to withdraw from the Peace Corps to focus on their efforts at home. Shortly thereafter, they launched Energize Clinton County.
"We were really inspired both by the incredible need our community had for a new vision of economic development and the opportunity we had to re-frame how communities should work for the future," Mark said.
"At the time there was sort of a unique buzz going around the community. A lot of people were actively engaged in discussing how the community could move forward," Taylor said. "We really began thinking about unique ways to begin approaching it, and we began seeing the focus areas we should put our time in -- small business development, exploring opportunities through green development, building a vibrant and sustainable standard for the community. Our focus has been on building a strong local economy."
Mark and Taylor have taken a multi-pronged approach to economic restoration. Using grants for green initiatives, they met with local government officials to institutionalize green development and establish a green enterprise zone in Clinton County, obtaining $1.3 million in stimulus funding for three renewable energy projects.
In addition to putting in place a 58.3 kilowatt solar electric system, the two are working to get free energy assessments in a partnership with the University of Dayton, a move that will help save the community tens of thousands of dollars each year in energy costs.
"There are opportunities out there that even a small town like Wilmington could take advantage of," Taylor said. "There are a lot of people who believe in the opportunity and see it as a no-brainer investment but we just really haven't seen it take off, there's been a lot more talk than there's been action. We've been struggling to figure out what has held back this investment that really makes a lot of sense. We're helping customers really see the quantitative impact of making energy efficiency investments."
"We've focused as much on job preservation as job creation," Taylor said, with Mark adding, "The goal wasn't necessarily to replace 10,000 jobs -- we saw the economy as a hole, there were a lot of leakages in the local economy, not supporting local businesses, energy loss, money spent on utilities, not taking advantage of new technologies. The premise of the approach was how do we stop those leakages."
By helping capital stay in the community, they are attempting to a more holistic economic mindset -- one that goes beyond simply saving money on energy loss in individual homes and takes into account the entire community's well-being.
"It felt almost like a service project," Taylor said. "It's more than just creating some sort of short-term difference, it's about participating in a community that we have deep roots in," Taylor said.
Though the project has really taken off in their county, the two hope that eventually, what they've done in Clinton County can serve as a model for other towns to rebuild.
"Our crisis wasn't very unique, but in its magnitude and speed, and there are hundreds of communities across the country that have been declining for decades," Mark said. "A lot of middle America has been overlooked and neglected -- long-term, our goal is always to create models that hopefully can be utilized by other communities."