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Q&A: Energize Clinton County's Mark Rembert

Taylor Stuckert and Mark Rembert of Energize Clinton County. Photos | Ben French
Taylor Stuckert and Mark Rembert of Energize Clinton County. Photos | Ben French

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As co-founders of Energize Clinton County, Mark Rembert and Taylor Stuckert established the nation's first Green Enterprise Zone to help bring innovative businesses to the area. Their effort has raised $1.3 million in renewable energy grants for Clinton County businesses, culminating in last month's nationally televised "Do Something" Awards on VH1, where they were one of five finalists and won another $10,000 grant. hiVelocity recently caught up with Rembert.

You've had a whirlwind month, especially with the Do Something ceremony. At only 25 years old, on stage with Hollywood stars, that had to be pretty heady stuff.

When we applied for the grant, we never would have guessed that would be the outcome. I mean, it was a great opportunity for us to share a positive story from Clinton County. We've born the brunt of plenty of negative press � 60 Minutes was here twice, telling the gloom-and-doom story when DHL decided to leave. So it was good to get a positive story out there. They showed a great, five-minute video on what we've been doing. And, of course, standing on a stage and getting handed an award from Megan Fox, you can't complain about that.

Going back to 2008, DHL had just announced it was closing its hub in Wilmington and both you and Taylor were just out of college, working on the East Coast and had plans for the Peace Corps. Coming back home to Wilmington was quite a change in plans, too.

Absolutely. We were on our way to being contributors to Ohio's "brain drain." As soon as we graduated from high school, we left with no intention of ever coming back. Taylor went to Butler University in Indianapolis and I went to Haverford College, which is just outside of Philadelphia, but he ended up moving to New York during my last two years in college, so we stayed pretty close. Then, Taylor went to the Peace Corps and I was working for a PR firm, but thinking it wasn't really what I wanted to do with my life. So, I signed up for the Peace Corps, too. By the time I got my Peace Corps assignment, DHL made its announcement. So, I decided I needed to come home and visit my family before I left for the Peace Corps because Wilmington was going to be a completely different place by the time I got back. I was there less than a month when Taylor came back. We got together and started talking about the Peace Corps and economic development and realized its was the kind of work we needed to be doing at home, rather than rural South America. There was a lot of energy and a ton of great ideas, and Clinton County had plenty of great assets, but there was no place that was bringing all of them together.

So, where did the idea for the Green Enterprise Zone come from?

We started in November 2008, right after the election. At that point, it was clear a stimulus was coming and it was going to focus on green development. We saw it as an important opportunity for Wilmington and Clinton County to position themselves to be part of this once-in-a-generation investment in a green infrastructure. So, we initially started with this idea of establishing a green enterprise zone, creating a set of policy incentives that would push the community toward attracting green businesses and providing incentives for them to come here. As we looked around, though, we found that there weren't a lot of local levers that we could pull that were any more attractive than what the state already had in place. So, the final outcome of the Green Enterprise Zone became offering some local incentives, but also connecting all the resources that were already available to businesses that were interested in Clinton County. We established the Green Enterprise Zone Council, which had representatives from all the city governments, county groups and economic development organizations, that focused on looking at our assets as a community, really understanding the Ohio incentives and the new Senate Bill 221. It speeds the process up for companies looking at Clinton County, facilitates a move for them. Overall, we're finding that green sector businesses are growing slower than we expected, but we expect that they'll pick up. When they do, we're in a great position to take advantage of that upswing.

How hard was it to get support, to get established groups to buy into the ideas of two 20-somethings a couple of years out of college?
In 2008, there we were, two young guys just out of college showing up in town and saying "Okay, we're going to get involved." Even though we were both from Wilmington, people had to warm up to our ideas. We've been very lucky to have a very strong planning commission, the Clinton County Planning Commission, as one of our closest allies. It's not part of the Miami Valley or Mid-Ohio planning commissions, it's sort of in the middle of all these commissions, left to its own devices. It's also a comprehensive organization that touches every part of the county, which is one reason they've been instrumental as a partner. They helped our credibility. Beyond ECC's Green Enterprise Zone work, we've worked with the planning commission putting together a pretty basic "buy local" campaign, which in itself has become a networking and innovation center for local businesses. We helped start the "buy local" campaign with 10 businesses. It's up to 170 now. The campaign has really shown them the economic difference between supporting local businesses or buying from big box stores out of town. We haven't lost a single "buy local" business since we started in 2008. Growing up in Wilmington, the downtown was barren. Today, there's one empty storefront in the Historic Downtown neighborhood. Yes, the air park is an incredibly important economic driver for the area, but the calculus of economic development has changed. It can't be just the air park anymore. We live in a different culture.

You've had other communities get in touch, looking to copy what you've been able to do in Clinton County. What have you been able to share?

We're most known for our green work, I guess that what's most interesting nationally, but looking back, our most important work has been helping the community find a new role for itself, a new identity. Losing DHL forced us to take a step back, look at our assets, our resources. It made us form networks and connections that we hadn't before. Now our goal is translating that into a model that we can share with other communities, especially small towns and rural communities. If you look at specifically what we've done, a lot of it is hard to transfer � a lot of it took the right people at the right time. But our message to other communities has always been the importance of planning, taking a new approach to see where a community fits into the broader modern context and figuring out where opportunity lies.  Our next goal is working on the new HUD Sustainable Communities grant, which we're very excited about. The three areas we've been working on � local business development, energy efficiency and transportation � all tie together nicely with that grant. It'll offer us a chance to really develop a model that can be used in any community. 

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