Wilmington quietly rebuilds its job base

WILMINGTON — The number 139 is prominent on placards in the front windows of city hall. It’s the number of new jobs this Clinton County town has garnered so far in 2013, and it’s updated once a week.

Mayor Randy Riley said the number represents not promises of jobs but jobs actually filled. It’s a small way for this community to focus on good news.

When DHL closed its U.S. freight hub in Wilmington in 2009, this city of 42,000 residents lost more than 8,000 jobs. It was an especially painful economic story in a year full of painful economic stories. News crews from 60 Minutes, CNN, the New York Times and others documented the city’s plight. Riley recalled European photographers instructing him to gaze out his office window and “look sad” as they photographed him.

Now, city and business leaders say Wilmington is rebuilding, with far less attention paid to it. No one talks about quickly or completely replacing the 8,000 jobs lost from DHL’s decision. But since December, the city has secured pledges of nearly 378 new jobs, from Polaris, DealerTrack Inc., Praxair Distribution Inc. and Custom Molded Products LLC. Airborne Maintenance and Engineering Services (AMES) has pledged to hire an additional 259 workers in the next 15 or so months and is building a $15 million repair hangar at Wilmington Air Park.

Riley said that while the city is grateful for those pledges, he said those numbers will not be counted in the city hall window placards until they’re filled. In what he calls a “conservative estimate,” Riley said the 45177 zip code — Wilmington and nearby locales — is on track to see the creation of “a minimum” of 750 jobs this year.

Bret Dixon, Clinton County economic development director, says talking up community strengths and working with companies pays off. And he says the city has been through worse trauma, such as when the Clinton County Air Force Base shut down in 1972.

“I didn’t really see that as though it were the end of the world,” Dixon said of DHL’s pullout.

First among the city’s strengths are ready workers, Dixon said. Kathy Kassinos, DealerTrack vice president and general manager, agrees. The company is a provider of vehicle processing and title management services for auto dealers and financiers.

“Over the years, Wilmington and the surrounding area have given us dedicated and hard-working team members,” Kassinos said. “We are looking forward to building our presence even further by expanding our team with local talent.”

Ohio Gov. John Kasich said he’s impressed with how Wilmington is focused on the future. The 2,200-acre airpark is roughly equidistant between Columbus, Cincinnati and Dayton, and has a ready workforce, he said. When the Ohio Tax Credit Authority awarded tax credits to three Wilmington projects last week, that was the result of a plan, not coincidence, Kasich said.

“We have a great facility down there, and we scout around all the time,” Kasich said.

Dave Burrows Jr., Dayton Development Coalition economic development programs director, said tax credits for DealerTrack, Praxair and Custom Molded Products were in the works for some time.

The coalition works with communities in 14 counties, and Burrows said the coalition “doesn’t play favorites.” But he credited Wilmington with positioning itself quickly after the DHL loss, particularly in securing the donation of the airpark from DHL.

“They’re leading the charge, and they’re calling us,” Burrows said of Wilmington.

Compared to the loss of the Air Force base in the 1970s, the community is actually in a better position today, Dixon and others argue. DHL gave the airpark to the Clinton County Port Authority, giving the community one of its chief assets. There, AMES maintains airplanes for clients like sports teams, passenger and cargo airlines and business leaders.

Those AMES clients include DHL, with which it reached a three-year agreement in February for work on Boeing 767 freighters.

Brady Templeton, AMES president, said that when his company started in May 2009 it had fewer than 300 employees. Today, he has more than 600, and he says he has “just started” on the hiring of the 259 new workers. (The company also has about 60 employees in Miami, Fla.)

“I’ve been here more than 20 years, and I think we were all certainly distracted by the DHL decision,” Templeton said. “But you get through it. You persevere.”

Riley, a former Clinton County commissioner, put the DHL pullout in perspective. Most of the lost jobs were part-time, with thousands of workers bussed in from Dayton, Cincinnati, Columbus, even Kentucky. He estimated that full-time Clinton County jobs lost because of the DHL decision reached about 2,000 to 2,500.

That remains a terrible number, Riley said. But replacing 2,000 jobs is less daunting than replacing some 8,000, he said. And he believes the city is on its way to replacing perhaps a third of those lost jobs this year.

Chris Flowers, co-owner of a downtown Wilmington pawn shop, Fast Cash, believes the community’s mood is improving. Business at his own shop, which he owns with his brother, picked up enough to justify a recent move to a bigger location near the key intersection of South Street with Main Street.

“Given what this area has been through, anything at this point is better than nothing,” Flowers said.

Riley believes Wilmington, with its torrent of bad news in 2008 and 2009, proved to be the “tip of the spear” of the recession.

He wants the city to play a similar leading role in what he hopes will be a recovery.

“I want to be the phoenix rising from the ashes of the current recession.”

Mark Rembert, executive director of the Wilmington-Clinton County Chamber of Commerce, said the community would never reject location inquiries from a large employer. But he said there is wider interest today in securing “diversity,” particularly from an array of smaller companies whose impact would be less significant if those businesses failed.

“We want a variety of businesses moving forward,” Rembert said.

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