When the economic crisis began, Wilmington, Ohio was hit hard. The DHL plant in town closed and with it 8,500 jobs were lost. Seeing his hometown in crisis, Taylor Stuckert and his friend Mark Rembert knew they had to do something. They started Energize Clinton County in 2008 with an emphasis on revitalizing the economy in their community. In just two short years, Energize Clinton County has brought economic stimulus to their town, including getting Wilmington certified as a Green Enterprise Zone, creating a popular campaign to encourage residents to buy local food and products, and instituting a fellows program which has brought dozens of young people back to the community to work with local businesses. Stuckert’s family traces their roots back to the original founders of Wilmington, now, 25-year-old Taylor and his generation are back to help their 200 year old town at a crossroads. Stuckert sat down with us to talk about the creation of Energize Clinton County, economic planning, and why he left city life behind to save small town America.
What’s your big idea?
Our big idea is to help find ways for small towns to access and utilize the powerful tools of planning and design in developing a vision for a healthy and vibrant future.
What was the inspiration behind your idea?
The inspiration came from the energy and creativeness that a community has shown in response to the jarring loss of 8,500 jobs in 2008. The community has opened my eyes to the value that a place can have on the individual and the importance of understanding, preserving and building upon that value. This particular community is my hometown of Wilmington, Ohio.
What problem or issue did you first try to answer?
When we first decided to be involved in the re-development efforts, our focus was almost solely on the creation of new types of jobs. During the election that year (2008), there was an especially strong emphasis on “green development” and “green jobs,” so our thoughts were, “How can we make Wilmington and Clinton County have a role participating in the growth of the ‘green economy?'” However, as the recession grew deeper, and it didn’t appear likely that we would be seeing any swaths of job creation taking place, we begin to delve deeper into the root cause of our issues locally and saw issues that were much more approachable and solvable from the local level.
What was the first milestone you reached when you knew that it was going to work?
In June 2009, Wilmington City Council unanimously approved an ordinance to establish the country’s first Green Enterprise Zone in Wilmington, OH. The signal wasn’t necessarily the ordinance that was being passed, but rather what the passing of the ordinance signaled–that our small community wants to have a leadership role in 21st century economic development.
What was your initial goal in addressing that problem?
Our initial goal was to provide needed capacity to help the community stay active in its pursuit of redevelopment and help it take advantage of opportunities that might have been previously too difficult to approach.
How did your goals change over time? And what’s your goal today?
Our goals have shifted more towards this vision of helping our community re-identify and re-imagine itself, so that we can begin re-building our community in a prosperous, yet healthy and sustainable way. We plan on doing this by focusing our efforts on utilizing the tools of good planning and design. Our goal will eventually be to share this experience with other smaller communities that don’t have access to the planning and design resources which greatly aid this process.
As our community celebrates its bi-centennial this year, two years after the loss of so many jobs, there’s a sense that people are becoming more connected to the historical, traditional and cultural values of the community. We see this re-visiting of what has preceded our community and what makes us unique has inspired many of the creative ideas for development that have followed the economic crisis. It’s our belief that many communities seeking solutions for the modern, economic development conundrums that have surfaced over the decades can start by identifying and understanding what makes the community special to its members.
Where did you grow up?
My family moved a bunch early on, but we settled in Clinton County when I was in middle school, and my family has been here since. Interestingly, my grandfather’s family moved to Clinton County in 1925 and my grandmother descended from one of the first Quaker families to arrive back in 1809.
What occupation did your parents have?
My Dad is a High School History teacher and my Mom is an account executive for a display company.
What college did you go to? Major/minor?
Butler University, Philosophy major, class of 2005.
What’s your favorite specific class or teacher? What was memorable about them?
My favorite classes were Political Philosophy and Philosophy of Law because they pushed me into deeper realms of analysis and understanding that I had yet to experience. They gave me the skills to view problem solving from a much more holistic perspective.
What figures do you most admire? Whose leadership model do you follow?
I’ve always admired the figures that had a more humble leadership style–actions which evoked the goals and objectives of that individual, depending less on words and more on living.
Whom do you seek out for advice?
Professionally, Chris Schock, our regional planning director and Mark Rembert, the other half of ECC. Personally, my parents and friends.
How is your life different now than it was before you started this project?
Most notably, there is much more of a tangible sense of purpose. Prior to this endeavor I was one of the many who flocked to New York City (most seemingly in a subconscious manner) to live the “city life.” My sense of purpose there was so transient and ephemeral that it was hard to notice at times. Being in a place that holds so much personal meaning, in that I live here with my closest friends and family, provides a much more tangible and present sense of purpose–one that mutes the trivialities that I once valued and in which I once sought comfort and purpose.
What excites you or concerns you about your generation?
What excites me is our entrepreneurial knack–our teeming energy and our comfort of innovation and change. While, potentially a negative, our generation possesses less traditional characteristics and values as older generations, yet I still believe we are very capable of discerning the good from the bad–what to keep and what to develop or progress. I think our generation has experienced (and hopefully learned) many valuable lessons over the past few decades regarding economic development, and particularly, the development of the built environment. The potential of building upon these lessons learned excites me for what could possibly come in the future.
It can be difficult to discuss the concerns of our generation without simply voicing concerns that are related to our current age and stage in development–concerns that were surly voiced regarding previous generations (drinking, lack of ambition, music and culture, lack of discipline, et al.). However, there is one concern that nags at me both because of its current presence and likely future presence via its impact on our generation in the coming years–that concern is the stunt occurring in our socio-economic development that we are experiencing most especially in this current economic recession. The reason this stunt particularly distinguishes from previous setbacks in economic progress is due to the unprecedented size of the generation before us–a generation that is living and working longer than any generation before it.
The setbacks to lifetime wealth, job and leadership experience, debt and pension support are things that should be a cause for concern for our generation. The average college student is now leaving college with a sizeable $25,000 in debt and compared to the job market I experienced just five years ago leaving college, are facing a daunting challenge to find work capable of countering growing costs of living and debt. Couple that with lack of incentive to invest in housing and rapid fluctuations in regional economies, and it appears that there are a lot of questions regarding the meeting of economic expectations that have been instilled in us. My hope, however, is that the things that I say excite me about my generation are capable of overcoming the issues that may be cause for concern.
If you had 60 seconds with President Obama what would you tell him or ask him? Politicians are professional question-answerers, so I guess I would have to tell him something rather than ask. I would tell him that there are a lot of people who believed that he was right for the job, and that a lot of those people are now questioning that belief–“President Obama, you need to recall the reasons that people so believed in you, and going forward, you need to let those reasons, not the distracting political reasons, guide your leadership.”
How has technology and social media affected your work?
It has pretty much made our work even possible. Our ability to operate and communicate on such a limited budget was made possible by technological innovations. The growth of open source and financially accessible technologies, such as Google and Facebook allowed us to operate on less and to more economically utilize the laughably-small amount of “start-up funds” we had.
What was or what is your biggest challenge? In a world that is so quickly changing and innovating, like so many private and public entities, the biggest challenge is to remain relevant and valued–both the importance of the issue and the trust in the offered solution. In our work this comes on dual fronts: inside and outside the community. Each has its unique set of challenges, but both are equally important.
What assets or challenges do you have or face because you’re young?
Do remember that feeling growing up of, “When are people going to treat me like an adult?” Then 16 rolls by, 18 too, 21, and yet the feeling still remains. Well, interestingly enough, 25 still yields, though much less often, that feeling that you’re still not old enough. This of course presents challenges when seeking credibility, but also serves as an asset due to our vigor, enthusiasm (or lack of jadedness) and, through fully experiencing the beginning of web 2.0, our comparatively massive social networks and intuitive understanding of technology. The challenge of being young is humility and trust. We need the humility and trust of those older and more experienced than us, but we also need to provide the same.
How would the world be different in 10 years if you had your way?
I am open to believe that I don’t really know what the world will be like in ten years, so I had better wait until then, and as most of us probably prefer to do, to say “what I would have done differently for the past 10 years.”
If you weren’t doing this, you’d be …
Well, if I weren’t doing this prior to ever having done it, I would be nearing the end of my second Peace Corps term in Ecuador and starting to think about how hard it will be to re-integrate back into the states, especially in this job market. Now if I weren’t doing this, now that I’ve done it for a while, is much harder to answer because of what it means to be doing this. I.e. it would be pretty hard to just “move on” with something else. But I’d imagine it would involve the planning profession.
Follow Taylor and Energize Clinton County on Twitter @energizecc.
[Photo by John Cropper]
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur himself, having completed his first documentary 18 in ’08 for which he was awarded a $10,000 grant from Nancy Lublin’s DoSomething.org. He is the Founder & Executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in fall 2011.
David and Fast Company are producing Change Generation, a new series profiling a young generation of change-seekers. We’ll be covering everything from educational activists to champions of political reform, creative entrepreneurs, and outright thrill seekers. We’ll be hosting Q&As as well as video profiles with production partner shatterbox.