DHL donates Wilmington Air Park

Local and state officials hope to attract new employers and jobs to diversify the regional economy and replace the more than 8,000 jobs lost when DHL, owned by the German mail and freight shipper Deutsche Post, closed its U.S. freight hub at Wilmington Air Park in January 2009. Ohio officials said it was the largest privately owned airport in the United States, and represented one of the largest public donations of private property in the state’s history.

“Wow, what a day. There were times I thought this day would never come,” said Wilmington Mayor David Raizk, who first asked DHL to consider donating the air park on May 28, 2008, when the company first announced cost-cutting plans that envisioned phasing out the Wilmington operation.

“Let us never forget June 2 as the day we turned the corner,” said Randy Riley, a Clinton County commissioner.

State and local officials said they have received calls from companies interested in locating at the air park. No commitments have been made, but the port authority can now talk in more definite terms as owner of the property, said John Limbert, a Dayton native and Wilmington banker who is the port authority’s chairman.

Officials declined to identify the companies that have expressed interest, but said they include established and startup firms, aerospace and aviation businesses, logistics and distribution operators, and manufacturers of environment-friendly equipment.

Limbert said he is hopeful of receiving some sort of commitment for new jobs by year’s end. He declined to be more specific.

The Air Force Research Laboratory has talked with Wilmington officials about the possibility of using the air park for development test flights of unmanned aircraft and new sensor payloads.

Jon Olin, a DHL Express senior vice president, said the port authority is free to market the property as it wishes, even to DHL competitors Federal Express Corp. and United Parcel Service. Neither FedEx nor UPS has expressed interest, officials said.

Air Transport Services Group Inc. employs about 750 people at Wilmington Air Park through its ABX Air and aircraft maintenance businesses there. ATSG has signed a nine-year lease, paying $3 million a year, that will give the port authority revenue to keep the air park maintained while additional tenants are pursued, Limbert said.

DHL’s donation includes the airport’s runways, tower and cargo sorting equipment. DHL will retain about 600 acres of nearby farmland. The port authority has an option to buy that within 90 days at a price to be determined, Olin said.

Under terms of bonds DHL sold to raise money for improving the airport, it must continue as an airport, but mixed uses by non-aviation businesses will be allowed.

DHL remains responsible for paying off the $270 million in bonds, Olin said.

The DHL hub had been the largest employer in a multi-county region. ABX Air, which operated the hub under contract to DHL, operated buses that brought in cargo-sorting employees nightly from Dayton, Columbus and Cincinnati.

The jobs can’t come soon enough. Clinton County’s unemployment rate of 17.7 percent in April was the highest of any Ohio county.

Home foreclosures escalated as a result of the DHL job losses and, more recently the recession, and some residents’ unemployment benefits could expire in the coming weeks, said the Rev. Dean Feldmeyer, senior pastor at Wilmington United Methodist Church, which has hosted various programs to support the community.

“The whole county right now is desperate for jobs,” Feldmeyer said.

Officials of DHL and the port authority signed documents to close the donation earlier on Wednesday in Columbus, then drove to Wilmington to make the announcement at a news conference at Wilmington Air Park. Keeping a promise, Riley kissed Raizk’s balding head to celebrate the deal, as news photographers recorded the moment.