Posted February 3, 2009
“60 Minutes” special on Wilmington – A town in Crisis
I moved to Ohio in August to begin a teaching job at Wilmington College in August—a small, Quaker liberal arts school located in Wilmington, Ohio. Even before I moved in, I had heard the preliminary rumors that would soon put Wilmington into the national news: DHL, the international shipping company with its US hub in Wilmington, would be closing its doors in 2009. In a town like Wilmington, with only about 12,000 people, the news that up to 7,000 jobs will be eliminated from the local economy is devastating. Today, with layoffs already underway, I can see the fallout appearing just in my drive home from work in an array of “for sale” signs on local houses and the loss of several local retail businesses—a donut shop and a record store. And in a town this small, located nearly an hour from Cincinnati, every local business is precious.
The airport that had attracted DHL has been both a major source of Wilmington’s economy and a source of its vulnerability for decades. Originally part of Clinton County Air Force Base from the 1950s through the early ‘70s, the site was abandoned by the government in 1971, leaving the local economy in recession. It wasn’t until 1980 that the small shipping company Airborne Express purchased the airport for commercial use, and in 2003 DHL acquired Airborne and vastly expanded the project. Now, the city will once again be left with a potentially valuable airport and no means of realizing that value.
As a newcomer to the area, I don’t feel that I can speak adequately to the community response to this crisis. I observed last year’s protests and petitions organized by DHL workers and their supporters that aimed to prevent DHL from leaving. The local bookstore sold shirts in support of the workers, and many of them found an audience with political visitors to town who were concerned with the economic situation, including Ralph Nader, John McCain, and Sarah Palin. The protests and petitions did not convince DHL to stay, however, and the current thrust of protest is aimed at forcing DHL to donate the airpark to the city on its departure. If Wilmington can lure another employer to the airport, the thinking goes, perhaps we can re-employ some of the workers who have been laid off.
For others in the community, there is a sense that we need to focus our attention elsewhere in terms of economic development. In November, there was a proposal on the Ohio ballot to build a casino in Wilmington as a way to staunch the economic bleeding. While the town was split on this possibility, the state-wide voters soundly defeated it. Others are ready to jump ship from Wilmington in search of jobs, and this group faces the added difficulty of putting their homes on the market in a town where houses have been languishing on the market for many months.
Wilmington, like so many towns in the Midwest, is heavily dependent on one industry. The loss of that industry threatens to put Wilmington, which is already somewhat depressed, into the ranks of Flint, Michigan, where the loss of local industry creates a permanent rather than a temporary state of economic crisis. For local residents in places like this, community action like the protests that emerged against DHL feels hopeless—the company doesn’t even bat an eye at local protest. I continue to believe that this kind of collective action is the only way that we’ll be able to fix things, but I don’t know exactly what kind of community work would be most beneficial in this immediate crisis. At Wilmington College, we’re trying to remain optimistic in the midst of all the trauma, contemplating how we might not only survive but also how we might be able to contribute to the rebuilding of the community in both economic and social ways. And although I don’t think the College knows exactly how to go about that yet, either, I do appreciate the Quaker values of community activism and consensus that it is attempting to bring to the table. Because the school attracts mostly local applicants, the crisis at DHL affects us all—staff members and faculty have spouses who work at DHL, students have parents being laid off, and all of us feel the changes in our small local community. I can only hope that these connections will help Wilmington do more than simply survive the crisis. For now, we’re just hanging on.