“The only preventive and the only remedy is for the people to choose one another, and their place, over the rewards offered them by outside investors.”
—Wendell Berry, “Does Community Have a Value?”
Just a little over 30 years ago, Wilmington, Ohio, the county seat of Clinton County, was a different place. The county was having its heyday, with a booming pork industry, a host of diverse manufacturers, family heirs and heiresses, a gorgeous downtown teeming with an incredible array of small businesses, a growing county hospital, and a reputable liberal arts college. The place screamed Norman Rockwell.
Today, after reeling from the loss in 2008 of its largest employer, shipping company DHL, along with over 8,500 jobs and hundreds of millions of dollars in economic revenue, it has the highest rate of unemployment in the state (18 percent) and has been referred to as “ground zero” of the “Great Recession.”
Mark Rembert and I, friends since our days growing up in Clinton County, crossed paths in Wilmington in late 2008, just as the town’s worst economic nightmare was beginning to take place. Like so many young people who leave our nation’s small, rural communities, we felt like little more than passers-by witnessing a devastating accident—concerned with what we saw, but nonetheless maintaining our current, onward direction.
We were both home for only a short time before heading off to Peace Corps assignments in Ecuador. I had just returned after being evacuated by the Peace Corps from Bolivia, and Mark was entering the Corps to expand on his undergraduate work in economic development. Our perspectives on development were heavily influenced by the Peace Corps model, which approaches development from the community level and emphasizes the importance of grassroots analysis and action.
After witnessing the economic equivalent of a hurricane in our hometown, we believed that a Peace Corps approach to our community’s rebuilding efforts could generate solutions that were more sustainable than typical top-down solutions and would, at least, complement ongoing efforts by community leaders to acquire the DHL-owned airpark and leverage it as an asset to attract new employers.
The top-down approach wasn’t a surprise, as this is the traditional way in which communities aim to build—or, as in this case, rebuild—local economies. The idea is to leverage tax incentives and infrastructure assets to attract employers and create jobs. It’s an approach that is consistent across regions and communities, but its effectiveness is increasingly questioned as time goes on.
As proponents of an alternative method, we believe economic development efforts must also include a bottom-up approach, especially given the national economic recession and our proximity to so many other communities that have spent decades trying to recover from the loss of large employers. We talked to people throughout the community and quickly recognized the energy brewing; there was a desire to push for increased involvement and ownership in the redevelopment of our devastated local economy.
In response, we formed Energize Clinton County (ECC), with the founding idea that small towns could be testing grounds for new energy technologies and energy policies. We made it our goal to make Wilmington the country’s first “Green Enterprise Zone,” with the aim of providing incentives for green development and building local capacity in material and energy efficiency, and thus demonstrate the community’s desire to have a role in new energy solutions.
Within a matter of months, following countless community meetings, the Wilmington City Council unanimously approved an ordinance to create a Green Enterprise Zone (including all property within the municipal boundaries of the city) in the summer of 2009.
We’ve since seen our community’s capacity for handling green development grow enormously, and have received $1.4 million in stimulus funds for solar and methane regeneration installations. We witnessed our first certified energy auditors (who were once airpark employees) and soon will have the county’s first solar installer certified by the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners (NABCEP). In essence, Clinton County is laying the foundation to become a leader in green development.
But our community is also responding to deeper economic issues common in communities across the country, especially in the rural Midwest. Issues such as the proliferation of big-box retail stores and the loss of local, independent entrepreneurs; the loss of manufacturing jobs; the outsourcing of jobs to other countries; and the consolidation of employers.
Energize Clinton County focuses on more than just making our community “green.” Our organization addresses issues that are key to both local economy and quality of life, including inefficient energy usage; the inability to put locally grown food on our plates in what is an overwhelmingly agricultural community; the struggle to convince our high-income earners to move here rather than commute; and—this is a big one—the mass exodus of our young people, who don’t invest in the place where they were raised.
But for us, this isn’t just a “Peace Corps: Clinton County” assignment. We are working in a place we call home, and home has an historical and traditional significance that we strive to preserve.
On the rural issues blog Daily Yonder, in a January 2010 article titled “Stay Put and Start the Revolution,” David Masciotra wrote, “The most unorthodox step for a young American may be remaining in his or her hometown, working there and building on traditional ties.” Mr. Masciotra’s statement resonates with us, not only because of the way being home has influenced our work, but more so because of the unique and arguably unconventional element it lends to economic development, community planning, and, most important, sustainability. Promoting rootedness, nativeness, and permanence alters community economic development, creating what we call home-based economic development.
The Peace Corps emphasizes the importance of immersion in and commitment to a place prior to laying out development plans or projects; yet, there always remains the inevitability of departure, and that departure has an impact on development efforts.
Our community’s story is a story of ownership, or, in the case of Wilmington’s growth over the last 30 years, the gradual loss of ownership. Clinton County, like so many other places, allowed companies with little interest in the longevity of the community to extract resources freely until those resources were exhausted. However, our community’s understanding of this situation has evolved as well. After the proverbial rug was pulled out from under us, our response shifted from blaming the company that pulled the rug to wanting to understand why our community was standing on that rug in the first place.
In addition to working with the city of Wilmington to establish the country’s first Green Enterprise Zone, we teamed up with the Clinton County Regional Planning Commission (CCRPC) to build a Buy Local First campaign that now has over 160 participating businesses and thousands of committed consumers, and formed Clinton County Green Alliance, a consortium of environmental groups in the county. In collaboration with the Ohio State University extension office and the Wilmington College AmeriCorps program “Grow Food, Grow Hope,” we have revitalized our farmers’ market in downtown Wilmington, and have continued to work on building demand for local food.
And most recently, with the CCRPC and the Clinton County Foundation, we established the Clinton Community Fellows, a program that provides stipends to talented Clinton County college upperclassmen and recent grads to work for 10 weeks in the summer with area businesses and nonprofits. In this, its inaugural year, we secured enough funding for four fellows—all now back from out of town.
Whether it is expressed through green development, farmers’ markets, buy-local campaigns, or efforts to develop sustainably, there exists an underlying desire for independence, or ownership—ownership of our economy, our environment, and generations of culture and tradition. It cannot be overstated, however, that this ownership comes with a cost and with great responsibility. People must recognize that their presence in a community is more than just “living in another town;” it is a bridge connecting generations of understanding of a particular place.
This is reflected well in the words of William Vitek, in his essay “Community and the Virtue of Necessity”: “It is not enough for each of us to attend to our work. We must become attentive to our naturalness and our nativeness. It is not enough to improve our individual lives. Each of us must commit to improving our communities.” We can no longer wish for sustainability or sustainable development without seeing the deeper value in the places we are trying to develop.