Candidates visit Wilmington, city hit hard by recession

GOP hopefuls at forum in city where jobless rate was once 19%.

Wilmington, population 12,520, has been the poster child for the recession since DHL Express shipping company started closing its hub there in 2008, eliminating more than 8,000 jobs in the region.

CNN and 60 Minutes swooped in to tell heartbreaking stories from the front lines of the country’s developing recession. Comedian Jay Leno hosted a “comedy stimulus” show here. Celebrity chef Rachael Ray served Thanksgiving dinner at the food pantry and stocked its shelves for a year.

Wilmington also happens to be in Ohio, where the Republican contenders for president are locked in a dead heat days before the primary election.

Mike Huckabee, former Arkansas governor and Republican presidential candidate, hosted his third GOP presidential forum about jobs there Saturday.

Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich all took part in the forum, which aired on Fox News and on WHIO Radio. The forum was closed to the press.

News of the candidates’ brief stop in Wilmington buzzed around town and a few residents were chosen to participate in the forum and ask questions.

Before the forum, about 100 people showed up at Sams Meats on Saturday morning to hear Romney speak.

Many hadn’t heard Romney canceled the stop late Friday. So the crowd got to hear U.S. Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, stump in his place. Portman is getting some buzz as a possible vice presidential nominee.

The extra attention is good for the town, said Sherri Collett, co-owner of Sams Meats.

Collett said she liked U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas but wasn’t sure if she would vote for him Tuesday.

She said she doesn’t know how the president could specifically help southwest Ohio, but said keeping jobs in the U.S. would help everyone.

“Sometimes it’s not about getting the best deal — it’s about helping your neighbor,” Collett said.

That attitude has helped Wilmington. Business is good at the deli despite the economic issues because people either can’t afford to spend their money out of town or choose to spend it with people they know, Collett said.

In Wilmington, if you forget your wallet at home, someone might pick up the tab. Restaurants and shops advertise a benefit for a native son Marine wounded in Afghanistan.

“There’s good people here,” said Michael Lueck, an environmental, health and safety manager for ABX, who was at the Portman event. “If somebody wants to come in here and start a business, there’s a good work force.”

Lueck was in the minority who kept their jobs at the Wilmington Air Park. At one point, Lueck worked with 16 other environment and safety employees.

Lueck said President Obama has had three years to change unemployment and has had little success.

“To me, government gets in the way of recovery,” Lueck said.

Clinton County’s unemployment rate went from as low as 4.4 percent in December 2007 to 19.2 percent in January 2010, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Clinton County had the seventh highest unemployment rate in Ohio in December 2011, at 11.1 percent.

Wilmington residents say the actual rate is much higher, but people have exhausted their unemployment benefits or stopped looking for work.

Small business owner Janet Schultz said DHL’s departure wasn’t completely bad.

Schultz watched customers spend thousands of dollars on ornaments and collectibles at her Hallmark store before the recession. When the economy started to slip, sales went down and Schultz realized she didn’t like that most of the products were mass produced overseas.

She dropped Hallmark and found local vendors to produce products such as honey, handmade soaps and eclectic jewelry for her shop, now called Janet’s Our Store. Many of the shop’s vendors used to work for DHL or the layoffs trickled down to impact their businesses.

Community leaders are supporting local small businesses with a “shop local” campaign while trying to attract new companies to the airpark, said new Mayor Randy Riley. DHL donated the Wilmington Air Park and 1,500 acres to the Clinton County Port Authority in 2010.

The park was cleared by the Federal Aviation Administration as a test site for remote-controlled aircraft earlier this year. Riley is pushing for Wilmington to not only fly unmanned aerial vehicles but build and maintain them. More than 200 acres has been allocated for agricultural and industrial use, possibly as product test sites.

A company that builds professional ovens and kitchen equipment has added some jobs, and Riley hopes to bring industrial bakeries to town.

“Wouldn’t it be great if you drove down to Wilmington and when you got out of your car you could smell muffins?” Riley said. “We were the tip of the spear of the recession. It’d be great if we could be the tip of the phoenix coming back out of these ashes to really show the country how to grow and thrive and turn things around.”

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