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Going hog-wild to revive cargo in Wilmington, Ohio

By Adina Solomon on July 2, 2014

The town of Wilmington, Ohio, with just 12,000 people, took a hit when DHL closed its U.S. hub there in 2009. At its peak, the company employed 9,000 people.

“The loss was very troublesome, and the community is still recovering,” Kevin Carver, executive director of Wilmington Air Park, says. “We are engaged every day trying to redevelop the Air Park.”

After it left, DHL donated the airport and much of the grounds to the Clinton County Port Authority. The Port Authority is responsible for the creation of jobs in Wilmington, which is in Southwest Ohio, about halfway between Columbus and Cincinnati on Hwy. 71. Columbus and Cincinnati are each 50-60 miles (80-96 kilometers) away from Wilmington.

DHL’s former property became the 1,900-acre Wilmington Air Park.

“What we think makes Wilmington attractive is several things,” Carver says.

The Air Park, which has two parallel runways of 9,000 feet (2,743 meters) and 10,701 feet (3,261 meters), is close to a major highway system. Because there are no passenger jets, it’s also relatively easy to get into and out of the airport due to the low volume of air traffic, Carver says.

The Air Park has quite a few tenants, including Air Transport Services Group, an air cargo transportation provider for air carriers, and its subsidiaries, cargo airlines ABX Air and Air Transport International. There is also an MRO provider. Half of the employees at the Air Park are involved with the MRO operation for predominantly wide-body aircraft, says Carver (pictured right).

“We have a very robust agriculture community. There are a lot of agribusinesses that are engaged in raising livestock,” he says. “There’s been a lot of work done on genetic background of these animals, if you will, to ensure they’re strong, healthy stock.”

In the last year, the Air Park has had an increase in special cargo, predominantly livestock purchased in Southwest Ohio. There is a quarantine facility five miles (eight kilometers) down the road from the Air Park.

Hogs make up much of the livestock, and they travel on 747Fs and MD-11Fs to Brazil, China, Russia and Poland. Recently, the Air Park shipped a planeload of white-tailed deer to Russia. Beth Huber, associate director of the Clinton County Port Authority, says these are charter flights, so sometimes the Air Park's cargo tenants move the livestock shipments.

Wilmington Air Park also sees aviation-related cargo and equipment, Carver says. There are a number of aerospace and aviation manufacturers in Ohio, including GE Aviation, which is based 40 miles (64 kilometers) away from Wilmington.

When asked about cargo tonnage figures, Carver says the Air Park doesn’t keep count.

“We’re just starting to get into this business,” he says, allowing that in the past year, there have been seven or eight international air shipments.

Wilmington is about 60 miles from Rickenbacker International Airport, an all-cargo airport with five weekly flights to Hong Kong. Huber says Wilmington uses its "unique qualities" in order to compete. For example, not having high traffic or many scheduled flights means it's easy to get into Wilmington on short notice.

“When we did our comprehensive development plan, we were very aware of the strengths and opportunity available at Rickenbacker,” Huber says.

Today, the Air Park employs 1,100 people, a little more than one-tenth what DHL had employed.

“We are trying our best to appropriately position the Air Park for redevelopment, given the assets that we have here, the strengths, the attributes,” Carver says. “We believe air cargo is one of the industry sectors that is a good fit for who we are and what we are here.”