|Officials debate best plan for economic development|
|Wednesday, July 31, 2013 12:50 AM|
BY ED GEBERT
Times Bulletin Editor
VAN WERT — Everyone attending a Tuesday afternoon session on economic development had the same goal. However, there were many proposed paths to reach the goal and plenty of questions and opinions expressed along the way.
The agreed goal was getting more economic development in the county. As the Van Wert County Commissioners sat down with Van Wert City Council and many other parties involved in the effort to bring jobs to the county in the commissioners’ conference room, the other underlying goal was to work together.
County Commissioner Stan Owens stated flatly, “I think it is extremely imperative that the city and the county stay united in a unified effort to promote economic development for Van Wert County. We as a group of commissioners realize that we are not economic developers, but it’s our job to help promote it.”
For the next 100 minutes, the group tried to come to an agreement on what that effort should be. At the center of the discussion was the agreement with Ohio State University Extension for an economic development director. Many officials, including the commissioners, have been upset that OSU terminated the county’s then director, Sarah Smith, last year without conferring with people in Van Wert before making that decision.
The commissioners floated a proposal to city officials about walking away from the agreement with OSU. It was not the first time for such a suggestion. Immediately after Smith’s firing, several elected officials — both county and city — expressed anger over the move and a desire to break off the arrangement with Ohio State. At this meeting, the commissioners re-emphasized their strategy in Smith’s hiring.
“We have different concerns than the city. Our small towns are horrible as far as what has happened with economic development. We made an effort to reach out to our small towns, to reach out to our neighboring counties to people who might want to invest in our county,” explained Commissioner Todd Wolfrum. “We may be ready to go in a different direction, and if that happens, the city council is a stakeholder too, and you guys are going to have to decide what direction you want to head. We’re kind of curious where you guys are at on it.”
Also invited to the meeting was a group of other stakeholders in the county’s economic concerns, including a few individuals with more than a quarter-century of experience in local economic development. Jon Rhoades, president of the Community Improvement Corporation, answered a number of questions regarding the agreement with Ohio State University. Bernie Niemann and Tom Alexander disputed the need for abandoning the agreement, noting the progress that has been made since OSU Extension became involved in the 90s.
Providing further clarity on the agreement with OSU Extension was president of the county’s economic development advisory board, Denise Frey. During the meeting Frey providing an explanation of the executive board which signed the agreement and the Van Wert County Economic Development Advisory Board. That board has representation from both the City of Van Wert and Van Wert County
“It is an equal agreement across the board,” she explained. Representing the city on that executive board is Van Wert Mayor Don Farmer while Commissioner Thad Lichtensteiger represents the county.
Frey went on to say that money for the salary and benefits of the two people in the economic development department is currently coming from the City of Van Wert (60 percent), Van Wert County (10 percent), and the OSU Extension (30 percent), yet the management of the office was equal. The city’s contribution is collected through the hotel-motel tax charged by businesses offering lodging in the city.
Answering Lichtensteiger’s charge that there was no local control over the director because OSU had the final right to terminate without consultation, both Rhoades and Frey pointed out that both the city and county had taken part in the hiring of economic development directors and that the duties and responsibilities were drawn up by the Economic Development Advisory Board Executive Committee.
For their part, the commissioners continued to pursue either changing the terms of the agreement or ending the agreement entirely. Frey continued to stress that changes in the bylaws were possible, and those with suggestions should go to their executive committee representative to get the ideas flowing.
“Just like today, it (the economic development plan) needs to be revisited on an ongoing basis. If something isn’t working well, it’s up to the executive committee, which includes OSU, city, and county, to make some revisions as needed. And it has been revisited over the years in regards to whether this is the right structure.
One important consideration in keeping the OSU agreement is the monetary concerns. Wolfrum pointed out that with the hiring of Sarah Smith by the commissioners, the county is contributing more per year toward economic development, and that there could be more available for a department without the university’s involvement.
Another point, as Rhoades brought forward, is the effort since the agreement began is much better than any previous economic development organization in the county. And the current system has many positives, including additions at Vision Industrial Park, and staff expansion at Eaton Corporation and Braun Industries.
After an extended discussion of past complaints and praises, the meeting broke up with no resolution. The immediate result of the meeting was improved communication between all parties, with information being shared. That communication could mark the first step toward actually united toward a common goal.