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U.S. News

Ohio town devastated by layoffs by German firm DHL

WILMINGTON, Ohio (Reuters) - Scott Terry is one of 7,000 who work in the small Ohio town of Wilmington who just found out he’s lost his job, and he’s scrambling to figure out how his family will survive.

A UPS truck drives in front of the Clinton County Courthouse past a DHL drop box in Wilmington, Ohio, November 11, 2008. REUTERS/Jay LaPrete

In every corner of Wilmington, home to the soon-to-close distribution hub of German shipping company DHL Express, townspeople are asking the same question.

“It’s devastating for me and my family,” said Terry, 41, who has spent the last 18 years in a job he loved at DHL’s main air cargo carrier, ABX Air. “Everyone I worked with pretty much planned on retiring from there years from now. It’s going to devastate Wilmington, the whole county.”

Wilmington has been at the heart of DHL’s five-year-old effort to take on U.S. package giants UPS and FedEx on their home turf -- an attempt DHL abandoned this week in the face of a slowing U.S. economy, shedding nearly 10,000 jobs in the process. DHL is a unit of Germany’s Deutsche Post.

The loss of 7,000 jobs from Wilmington, a town of just 12,000 set amid the rolling farmland of Ohio’s southwest, has has scared a lot of people.

The economic base of the town and its surrounding area has suddenly disappeared, just as the nation teeters into recession -- making Wilmington the poster child for small towns across America facing the kind of economic crisis not seen since the Great Depression.

At the General Denver Hotel and Grille in Wilmington’s quaint downtown, the 17 staff members have volunteered to take a reduction in pay, to cut their hours -- anything to help the inn survive what is going to be a brutal decline in business.

“We’ve been trying to figure out how much business (will be lost),” said owner Molly Dullea, 51. “It’s probably a good 30 percent -- it could be the amount that would close our doors.”

BRAINSTORMING TO AVOID LAYOFFS

At the bookstore and cafe across the street, staff have called a meeting to brainstorm how they can avoid layoffs when people stop spending money on lunch out, and customers joke with black humor about their community’s future.

“Can a town go bankrupt, like Iceland?” one man asked as he sat at the cafe’s coffee bar.

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At Granny’s Country Cupboard, a gift shop where homemade fudge is sold beside scented candles and Christmas ornaments, owner Donna Logan is preparing for a huge drop in sales just as she adds a restaurant to her business.

“I’m scared to death,” said Logan, 63. She’s going ahead with her expansion, hoping it might even be a good move to shift her sales base from crafts to food.

“I can’t stop, I’ve already got too much invested,” she said as a delivery man dropped off a huge industrial stove for the new restaurant. “I hope people will eat when they won’t buy the things in the shop. I’m hoping it will keep us afloat until we can get something else at the air park.”

The “air park” is part of Wilmington’s local lexicon, a former Air Force base where DHL built its hub in 2005 in conjunction with Astar Air Cargo and ABX Air. Both will likely close their operations when DHL leaves, along with scores of smaller businesses which mushroomed around the air park.

Logan said everyone in Wilmington knows someone who works at the air park. One of her employees, Carol Geyer, has a son working at Astar who is waiting to hear bad news.

“He’s 45 years old, he’s got two girls in college,” said Geyer, 70. Her son, David, started shipping out resumes when DHL hinted in the spring that it might close operations -- but he hasn’t heard anything yet. Geyer is worried.

“What can he do? With this economy it’s really scary.”

ABX worker Terry is already making plans for a new career, putting his 18 years’ experience behind him and starting from scratch to learn a skilled trade.

“I’ll go back to school if I can,” said Terry. He and his wife have four kids who have already been told their lives are going to get a little harder. Terry thinks he might study heating and air conditioning repair -- some kind of service job that can’t be outsourced or lost overseas.

“There’s not a lot of safe jobs anymore,” he said.

Ohio’s unemployment rate is 7.2 percent, above the national rate of 6.5 percent, and the Rust Belt state has long suffered from a declining factory sector.

Still, as a cold rain ushered in dusk on Tuesday in downtown Wilmington, townspeople turned on Christmas lights and continued preparations for the town’s well-known December festival, which draws hundreds, vowing to survive.

“This is the quintessential hometown, the place everyone wishes they had. It’s quirky and sweet and smart, and they have no doubt they will save the town. Where do you find that anymore?” said inn owner Dullea. “Here. You find it here, in Wilmington, Ohio.”

Additional reporting by Nick Carey in Chicago, editing by Vicki Allen

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