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  • 07.28.10

DoSomething Winner Returns to Save His Stricken Hometown

After he graduated, development major Mark Rembert applied for the Peace Corps, thinking he could help developing countries strengthen their communities. But when his hometown’s largest employer shut its doors, Rembert found that rural Ohio needed him most.

DoSomething, headed by Fast Company columnist Nancy Lublin, has recognized five young social entrepreneurs with $10,000 grants–and one with a prize of $100,000. Fast Company will profile one of these enterprising youth each day this week. Click here to read the other winners’ stories.

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Instead of flying to Ecuador, Rembert went home. “When your community
has 18% unemployment, its hard to justify going to [Latin America] to
help out,” Rembert says. In Wilmington, he found Taylor Stuckert,
another would-be Peace Corps recruit, and together, they started
Energize Clinton County (ECC), a not-for-profit devoted to creating
green jobs, investing in sustainable energy, and marketing local
industries and businesses. His initiative earned him a $10,000 DoSomething award, money that he says will be plowed back into the
community.

With ECC, Rembert and Stuckert are doing the same thing they would
have in the Peace Corps: They have helped a rural community take
advantage of resources it already had. Though Clinton County had been
buoyed for years by the massive DHL facility, Rembert saw that his
region had many other strengths it had previously ignored, including a
charming downtown, an abundance of farmland, and the benefit of Ohio’s
tax incentives for green businesses.

Forming a group of town leaders charged with understanding the red
tape for green industries, ECC designated Wilmington a Green
Enterprise Zone, the first of its kind in the nation. The move–part
marketing strategy and part zoning ordinance–has helped Wilmington
secure Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grants from the
federal government’s Recovery and Reinvestment Act. These in turn have
served to attract private capital from solar energy companies in his
small town. Part of Rembert’s job is simply to understand how
Wilmington’s utilities work, to make the job easier for investors, he
says: “We spend a lot of time working with utilities, so that when
[solar] companies come to town we can tell them where to go.”

Recently, ECC’s efforts landed Clinton County a Purchase Power
Agreement with Gaia Energy USA to install solar panels on the county
jail. Gaia will provide more than $300,000 in capital investment to
install 65 kilowatts of panels. Once installed, the panels could help
the county save more than $25,000 a year on energy costs.
Meanwhile a project is being seriously explored to make poetic use of the abandoned DHL
facility by installing solar farms on its roofs, while another will use
farmland in the county for utility scale solar fields. If successful, the
latter would count as one of the largest solar power sources east of the
Mississippi.

To spur green-job creation through construction, ECC has also focused
on retrofitting buildings. The organization solicited help from a
professor at nearby Dayton University to supply line-by-line energy
audits on town buildings. The service is key to helping businesses and
public works invest in retrofitting, which saves money and creates
construction jobs. “Since you can’t see energy and you can’t see the
money leaving your building, it’s really difficult to convince people
to invest [in retrofitting],” Rembert says. “When we’re armed with
data, it has a huge impact.”

ECC has also designed an easy-to use and professional-looking online
portal that promotes 170 locally owned businesses and sends out a
weekly email newsletter read by 1,000 people every week. Thanks to a
renewed involvement, the downtown commerce area has been completely
tranformed. “When we were growing up, downtown was dead. We went to
the strip, to Walmart–that’s where everyone was. Now everyone wants to
be downtown,” says Rembert.

He senses that young American designers, economists, and urban
planners have shown a renewed interest in rural areas, where projects
are easier to initiate and have a much larger impact than in dense and
highly regulated city centers. His own ECC is a remarkable case study
of development and planning skills, which he intended for use in Third
World countries, at work domestically. “We ended up realizing that a
lot of the principles used in the Peace Corps–community asset
based-development–were what was need in Wilmington.”

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His epiphany and his subsequent follow-through earned him not just the
$10,000 prize but also a trophy given to him live on VH1 by none other
than Megan Fox, who grew up in eastern Tennessee. “I think she’s
really passionate about rural America,” Rembert says. Always
on-message, he believes he was especially lucky to have been paired
with the actress–for exposure’s sake: “We have no doubt,” he says, “that our video has been viewed many, many times.”

[Photograph by Gabriela Herman]

More winners’ stories:
Micaela Connery: Knocking Down Barriers With the Power of Performance
Jacqueline Murekatete: Genocide Survivor Embraces Her Ordeal to Educate Others


Will Perez: Med Student Pioneers “Political Medicine” in Rural Haiti

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