When the Clinton County Board of Commissioners, City of Wilmington, Wilmington Community Improvement Corporation, Clinton County Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Clinton County Port Authority committed in June to launching a comprehensive, collaborative county-wide economic development program, it was a natural next step for an important regional player in southwest Ohio.
The Clinton County Port Authority is a special purpose government entity formed to operate transportation infrastructure and lead economic development efforts. It owns and operates the Wilmington Air Park, an integrated aviation and logistics business park located on 1,900 acres with nearly 2 million sq. ft. of industrial space, 200,000 sq. ft. of office space and 300,000 sq. ft. of hangar space.
The Port Authority will serve as the area’s primary point of contact for economic development activity, presenting a unified front and eliminating potential duplication of effort.
“We believe that this structure adds clarity and value to the community’s economic development efforts,” said Clinton County Port Authority Chairman Walt Rowsey.
The Port Authority since taking ownership of Wilmington Air Park in 2010 has seen tenants grow from four employers and 750 employees to 13 employers and 2,000 employees. This mirrors activity throughout Clinton County. Among recent investors is global pharmaceutical firm Alkermes, which announced an expansion in 2017 that retains 400 jobs and adds 90 jobs totaling $5.3 million in payroll (just under $59,000 on average).
AZEK, the maker of TimberTech high-end decking and other extruded building products, opened its second facility in Wilmington in April 2019, adding 40 employees to an area footprint that already employed 475. Wilmington beat out a competing site in Pennsylvania for the $40 million investment.
BrightFarms, a producer of greenhouse-farmed greens, herbs and tomatoes, opened in Wilmington last summer and announced expansion plans less than a year later as its greenhouses sprout across the country to serve major grocery chains as well as restaurants. With a $10 million investment, a 120,000-sq.-ft. greenhouse and 30 employees initially, the company partners produces 800,000 pounds of greens and herbs annually.
Oh, and there’s a little outfit called Amazon about to launch an air cargo operation at the air park.
“We were just at a new hiring orientation event last night where we distributed several hundred airport security badges, we’re doing another one tonight and another one the next day,” Clinton County Port Authority Executive Director Dan Evers says of the Amazon operation.
Case Studies in Teamwork
The AZEK decision showcased the Port Authority’s close collaboration with the Dayton Development Coalition (DDC) and JobsOhio on an attractive assistance package, and with utilities to make sure such a large power user had the power it needed and that systems upgrades were accommodated economically.
The upgrade of a former warehouse involved four 72-foot silos for feedstock, which introduced some concerns about penetrating the airspace at an airport with a full instrument landing system. The FAA told the Port Authority that even though that runway is temporarily closed, the Authority could kill the project if it wanted to.
“Well, we didn’t want to kill the project,” Evers says. “So we worked toward a solution.”
The Port Authority worked with the DDC, the office of Congressman Steve Stivers and airport operator LGSTX Services, “who were extraordinarily helpful working with us to navigate this process,” Evers says, whittling a review process that normally takes a couple months down to a couple weeks. “Everyone leaned in.”
The result? “When we bring the runway back, there will be more testing, and we will expand our antenna array by the amount necessary to operate on that runway at full instrument landing capacity,” says Evers. It’s an investment of up to $100,000 that the Port Authority was willing to make so the project could move forward. “Those are exactly the kinds of jobs we want in this community, and this region can supply the workers for,” says Evers. “That is the Dayton region — technology and manufacturing writ large.”
BrightFarms opened its greenhouse in 2018 not in the air park proper, but on a parcel right across the street owned by the Community Improvement Corporation of Wilmington that backs up to Wilmington College, which Evers says has the second most robust agricultural science program in Ohio after Ohio State. The ag tech program of Southern State Community College is just down the street. Along with the Port Authority, the DDC, City of Wilmington officials, JobsOhio and the local Ohio Means Jobs office (for personnel screening and recruitment) have been there supporting the company from the start. And it appears the hydroponic company already has cultivated ties in the community.
“I took my parents out to a local place for dinner, my Dad pointed down to the menu, and it said, ‘We proudly serve BrightFarms products.’ That’s emblematic of this community — an international company like BrightFarms is interfacing with an independently owned restaurant that just started serving food.”
Clinton County Port Authority Associate Director Beth Huber has seen the resilience of Wilmington first hand, having worked at the air park for 20 years, including when Airborne Express ruled the roost, then when DHL, after acquiring Airborne, in 2003, decided in 2008 to move its hub to Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky, causing the Wilmington area to lose 8,000 jobs. The transition echoed what happened when the U.S. military closed up in the 1970s before handing the property over to the community.
“There have been tons of changes and regrowth,” says Huber.
Evers says the intentional diversification of the air park into new industry sectors “speaks to the grit of the community and the collaboration of the region. Nobody came here to make us feel better. They came here because we’re good for business. There’s nothing better than market validation.”
This Investment Profile was prepared under the auspices of the Clinton County Port Authority. For more information, visit www.wilmingtonairpark.com.
Adam Bruns has served as managing editor of Site Selection magazine since February 2002. In the course of reporting hundreds of stories for Site Selection, Adam has visited companies and communities around the globe. A St. Louis native who grew up in the Kansas City suburbs, Adam is a 1986 alumnus of Knox College, and resided in Chicago; Midcoast Maine; Savannah, Georgia; and Lexington, Kentucky, before settling in the Greater Atlanta community of Peachtree Corners, where he lives with his wife and daughter.