Local businesses and residents of Wilmington and Clinton County have been knocked down a few times since I started my first automobile dealership here 55 years ago, but many of us have been resilient and lucky enough to get back up and fight many more rounds.
The major punches the area’s economy took were thrown by the former owners/operators of what is now the Wilmington Air Park, now owned by the Clinton County Port Authority.
The U.S. Department of Defense shut down the Clinton County Air Force Base in 1971 and eliminated more than 300 jobs. DHL Express ended its local operations at the former base in 2009 and more than 8,000 jobs disappeared.
At the beginning of October, I ended an 11-year run on the board of the port authority which took ownership of the Wilmington Air Park in 2010. A year ago, I stepped down as a board member of the Wilmington-Clinton County Chamber of Commerce, a role I had several times since opening my dealership here in 1960 as a 25-year-old.
Since I have had an active role in numerous area service organizations over the past half-century and still serve on a business advisory board for Wilmington College, I was asked by the leadership at the port authority to share my historical perspective and economic forecast for the community at large and the air park in particular.
Anyone who knows me or has dealt with me probably gets that I am an eternal optimist so they know what kind of rhetoric to expect from me. And after all, I am a car salesman first and foremost and optimism is my middle name. Some might say I could sell a convertible to an Eskimo.
The 1960s were a great time to start a business in Clinton County. In 1960, the local air force base had been designated as a Strategic Air Command, meaning it was part of a peace time force intended to discourage enemy aggression. We sold many cars to servicemen and civilians at the air base. And believe it or not, the longest we could extend a car payment in those days was 24 months!
We also had a strong group of manufacturing employers such as Irwin Auger Bit and the Randall Company and things a lot of communities our size didn’t have — a college, a hospital, three banks and a daily newspaper.
The county, with the air base as a focal point, was booming with economic activity through the first dozen years of my dealership here. But then virtually with no warning, the base was decommissioned and closed in 1971. It was a jarring blow for sure but one that community leaders of the day quickly turned into a positive.
The Wilmington Community Improvement Corporation, created locally in 1967 to retain and encourage economic development, went on the offensive to acquire the former base site.
Bankers Bob Olinger and Maynard Davids, News Journal publisher Tom Hunter, and other business and political leaders made several trips to Washington DC and convinced the government to sell the former military facility to the CIC for $1.2 million.
After the deal was consummated, Olinger called the closing of the air base “a blessing in disguise.”
The newly-named Wilmington Industrial Air Park took off and by the early 1980s had three times the number of employees that the former base had employed. The Laurel Oaks Career Campus and Ferno were among the first tenants and are still located next to the now redefined borders of the Wilmington Air Park.
As most longtime locals know, Airborne Express would become a dominant player in the air cargo market throughout the 1980s and 1990s and with various purchases of land from both governmental and private entities the park would increase by some 500 acres to 2,000 acres.
That second historic and major economic impact punch landed hard locally in May 2008 when DHL, which had arrived on the air park scene only five years earlier, announced that it would end operations in Wilmington.
With all due respect to those who lost jobs, and to borrow a phrase from the late Mr. Olinger, I think the departure of DHL will also turn out to be a “blessing in disguise” for the long-term economic future of Wilmington and southwest Ohio.
Once again, local and state leadership, including board members of the Clinton County Port Authority and CIC, went on the offensive. We collaborated on a strategy that resulted in the Wilmington Air Park being donated to the port authority.
Because of those efforts, we now have all the facilities with no strings attached and room to grow new and diversified businesses — many potentially offering wages that will be above the norm.
Let me repeat that, I honestly think Wilmington and Clinton County is sitting in a better position today than we were when DHL was at its peak. I know that might be hard for some folks to digest, but that is what I firmly believe.
We have already reduced our unemployment numbers by some 10 percent over the last five years and I am guessing that a lot of those folks who were sorting packages for DHL have gone back to school or found more rewarding opportunities locally or elsewhere.
Another silver lining has been the emergence of many millennial leaders who are now heavily responsible for the thriving Wilmington-Clinton County Chamber of Commerce and other positive economic drivers in our communities.
I know Washington is broken and sometimes I am not sure about the state, but I feel better about the future of Wilmington and Clinton County because of its history of comebacks and the potential of these new, young leaders—many of them some of our best and brightest natives who have returned home to start careers.
The air park is on the move with the recent announcements by ATSG that pushes employment above what is was at the beginning of the 1980s. I think there is a team and collaborative strategy in place that will attract new companies that want to locate at the air park.
Beyond the air park, we still have the aforementioned companion community components that employers and residents want—including twice the number of colleges and banks that we had a half century ago..
I just turned 80 and would start my business here today as a twenty-something if I had it to do all over again.
Bill Marine is owner of Bill Marine Ford.