Recession City Revisited

Some progress, but recession 'poster city' faces uphill road

By Dan Sewell
Associated Press

WILMINGTON, Ohio (AP) - Folks in this little Ohio city are thankful for all the interest and help: the national TV coverage, the attention from politicians of all stripes, the visits by celebrities, the generous donations to feed families facing hunger for the first time.

Now they'd like to be known for something more than being dubbed "ground zero" for the Great Recession, when they took what the mayor calls "a gut shot" as their major employer decided in 2008 to pull out of town.

"We appreciated it- Jay Leno, Glenn Beck, Rachael Ray coming here - that was good stuff," said Mayor Richard Riley. "But then there was the other extreme - 'I wish this wasn't happening to us; I wish that we could get over this because we don't want to be the poster child for the recession.' We were ... but who wants to be that?"

There are some positive signs these days in the town in a rural area some 60 miles southwest of the state capital of Columbus, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich will help spotlight them when he returns Feb. 24 to deliver his State of the State address here. Staggering unemployment rates that topped 19 percent at their worst five years ago have fallen, to below 6 percent at the end of 2014 for Clinton County, where Wilmington is the county seat. The city stopped keeping its running tally of new jobs in a downtown window after topping 1,000, but Riley said the total is around 2,000.

There are other numbers, and vignettes, that show the city is still on a long, uphill road to come back from the plunge it took when delivery service DHL Express, battling its own economic pressures, moved a cargo hub from Wilmington's sprawling air park. That cost more than 8,000 jobs in the region, affecting an estimated one in three households in the city of some 12,000.

"They can brag about the new jobs all they want," said resident Michael O'Machearley. "Living at 'ground zero,' I can tell you the economy's not going that great."

After losing his air park driver job six years ago, O'Machearley focused on building up his custom knife business at home. He was interviewed by German, Italian and U.S. TV networks reporting on Wilmington's woes, so he got publicity for his business. But even though he's sold knives to buyers around the world, he figures his income is about half what it was before.

The number of private sector jobs in the county is some 30 percent below the pre-recession totals, with fewer in the workforce and more people working elsewhere; household incomes are down and poverty levels up. Your Father's Kitchen, the food pantry and cafeteria that TV cook Ray helped remodel and expand, still assists hundreds of people each week with hot meals and groceries.

"The real lesson is that it takes a while to recover from a disaster like that," University of Dayton economist Richard Stock said. "It doesn't get done overnight."

A few years before the recession, Wilmington showed up in national stories about the best small towns in America, with its picturesque downtown including book shops, cafes and knick-knack stores and its shaded Victorian-style houses. Unemployment was below statewide and national rates back then.

Wayne Wilkin worked at the air park as a mechanic; now he works at home selling honey from the bees he keeps.

"I didn't know how good I had it," said Wilkin, who also has a part-time grocery store job. His family, like O'Machearley's and others, has learned to live with less: rarely dining out, going without cable TV and the daily newspaper, getting health coverage through a Christian cooperative. "You get used to it; you go back to your roots and faith. You find out what you can do."

"This isn't a case of people sitting around in Clinton County and going 'poor me,'" Stock said.

Two Peace Corps volunteers who felt they were needed back in their hometown started "Energize Clinton County," a nonprofit focused on using green energy and efficiency measures to cut power bills and on promoting a "Buy Local First" campaign to support the area's farmers and businesses. Wilmington College, founded by Quakers in the 19th century, offered garden plots and taught people how to grow their own vegetables. The community took over the air park, and companies based there have been hiring. State incentives and recruiting have helped draw new employers or get them to expand: Ireland-based drugmaker Alkermes PLC this month announced plans to add 51 jobs and $3.1 million in payroll to its Wilmington plant.

"We're talking about turning the corner," said Riley, a retired respiratory therapist who wants Wilmington to be compared to the mythical "phoenix rising from the ashes." ''It's like a banked track at NASCAR; we're accelerating now, we're building up speed."

It's glass-half-full optimism, something that many here like better than reminders of how far they fell.

"The people are really trying to do what they can," Wilkin said. "I think there are better times to come."

Published: Tue, Feb 24, 2015