In Wilmington, Opportunity Knocks

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WILMINGTON, Ohio -- The Federal Reserve says don't expect the economy to improve any time soon. High unemployment levels are expected to hold through 2011. One of the communities hardest hit by the economic conditions is Wilmington, Ohio. Wilmington is a small city that recently lost more than 7,000 jobs. That's more than half of the city's population of nearly 12,000 people. However, residents are working to turn depression into opportunity.

Click the player to watch the report from CBN News Washington Correspondent Jennifer Wishon.

Settled by Quakers, the city's downtown hums as trucks, with no alternative route around Main Street, pass through. Wilmington oozes Americana. Building fronts lining the streets are cheery and well maintained. On the outskirts of town, an airpark houses what's left of international shipping giant DHL.

Doug DeVilbiss is a developer in town.

"It was kind of a joke," he told CBN News. "Gee, what if something ever happened to DHL and people never really talked about it.  Well, May 28th last year, it hit."

DeVilbiss is talking about DHL's decision to scale back before shutting down U.S. service altogether. Several months ago, more than 7,000 men and women who worked at the airpark learned they were losing their jobs.

"It's very unsettling trying to decide how deep is this going to impact us?," DeVilbiss said.

Hard Times Have Rolled Through Before

Long time residents have been haunted by hard times at the airpark before. In the 1970's, the Air Force left the facility causing the city's unemployment rate to soar. In many ways Wilmington, Ohio has become representative of the nation's economic problems. But instead of focusing on everything that's going wrong, many folks here are working to become models of change.

Steve Brown is one of them. He's lived in Wilmington his entire life. Now as executive director of Main Street Wilmington, he's working to breathe new life into downtown.

"We see a bright future," Brown said. "Although it's going take time and we realize there will be some struggles along the way."

According to Brown, a six percent turnover of businesses on Main Street is normal. Last year, however, 18% of businesses moved on. But things are looking up. So far in 2009, there are seven new commitments to move in.

"It's just the people," Brown explained. "The resiliency of the people is what I believe is very unique about this town."

Marla and Don Stewart's "Books 'N' More" store is one of Main Street's bright spots. Sales are down, but thanks to a buy local campaign, the couple say it's not nearly as bad as they expected.

"People are realizing that this is the time that Americans traditionally have dug in," Marla Stewart said.

Re-Thinking The Way To Do Business

The Stewarts realize tougher times may lie ahead, so they're rethinking their business model. That includes improving their website to cut costs and taking advantage of classes at a temporary Small Business Administration office set up to help business owners weather Wilmington's economic storm. They are also learning how to use their status as a small woman-owned business to capitalize on government contracts for books.

Meanwhile, Steve Brown points out a new shop called "Reality Skates" as an example of how residents who have received pink slips can turn their hobbies into small businesses of their own.

City leaders are working to get the airpark back from DHL. If that happens, residents feel confident another business will move in. There's still anxiety among city residents, but using history as their guide, many folks in Wilmington believe they will be ok.

The people CBN News spoke with are hopeful President Barack Obama's $787 billion stimulus plan will help, but aren't holding their breath waiting for major results.

"A lot of things can't be cured just by throwing money at them but some things can," Don Stewart said. "It's just a matter of where the money goes and hopes that it goes to the right place to do the most good."

DeVilbiss thinks the community is going to look back on this time and remember it with pride and say, "'We're proud of what we did. We took one to the gut, but we survived it and we're a much stronger community.'"

Wilmingtonians, along with Americans everywhere are looking forward to the time when they can look back on their economic battle scars.

*Originally aired February 20, 2009

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CBN News
Jennifer Wishon

Jennifer Wishon

CBN News Washington Correspondent

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