“We always did feel the same, we just started from a different point of view” – Bob Dylan.
Changing things ain’t easy. The status quo doesn’t come to be without gathering inertia along the way. We, the Van Wert County Commissioners, set about charting a different course in economic development about a year ago. That met with nearly universal enthusiasm except with the people then in charge who first politely invited us to keep quiet and then not so politely invited us to keep quiet. Then people started storming out of meetings. We didn’t quit because we believed we were elected to change what needed changed, and this did. Despite the initial conflict, there has been an extraordinary transformation in the mood of and faith in our county – something fundamental has shifted. Let me explain.
I came into office believing that there existed a shortage of ideas. I thought I had some. What I found was no lack of good ideas, but rather an institutional disinterest in them. Economic development (ED), as it was, largely involved meetings and filling out surveys – and then more meetings. A volunteer ED Advisory Executive Board ran things and they casually gathered once a month or so. That eight or nine member board contained not a single entrepreneur or even a person that wrote paychecks. Odd that.
ED is a long game – some of the programs initiated at the county level will take years to pay off. Rarely are there quick results. But there has been here, where the countywide epidemic of having meetings for the sake of putting in the record that there was held a meeting has been replaced with action and engaged dialogue.
The Van Wert County Port Authority – At the start of the year, the president of that board suggested that it was not necessary to have quarterly meetings or to even be active at all. We restructured that board and brought some new members on. Now the Port Authority has found a way to make money by storing rail cars on the track that currently leads to nowhere between U.S. 30 and the transfer station. That money can be reinvested in ED projects or used to make our county look better. The Port Authority is also working with the Parks District on a Rails-to-Trails project through Ohio City.
Delphos – It straddles Van Wert and Allen counties and has been long neglected by both. That town initiated its own ED efforts this summer with input from community leaders and citizens. We are working with Delphos to create and fund a position for a Delphos ED director. That person will split time between there and our county office. (Can someone tell me why Delphos Jefferson is considered an Allen County school? We would love to have Jefferson, whose High School and Middle Schools are in Van Wert County, be a part of what we are building here.)
The county villages – At the first ED Advisory Group meeting I attended, there was no representation from the villages. I asked different village reps why and they said that the group never had anything to offer them. The county is developing grant-writing coordination that brings our towns together as a team to strengthen grant applications. We hope to rebuild infrastructure and get these towns back to being themselves. They’re back in the game, so to speak.
The Regional Planning Committee – The first of these meetings I attended, one of the members quit in frustration because nothing of substance was ever discussed. Those gatherings now take on issues that affect the county like windmills and the tearing down of worn-out buildings. It’s also now an opportunity for township government to get involved in ED.
The Business Development Corporation (BDC) – this group was the force behind both Vision Park and Industrial Park in the past, but had not taken action in a few years before some of their members came to object to our discussing a change in ED. To strenuously object, I might add. That group’s frustration with us apparently rattled them back to life. They now have an initiative to raise two million dollars for what they call an Enterprise Fund to aid local ED efforts.
Even the aforementioned OSU Advisory Executive Board, which now kind of directs Van Wert City’s ED efforts, took some of our criticism to heart and appointed to itself some active members of the business community.
People still ask when the county and city are going to get back together. First, let me point out that there are many cities that have their own ED offices. Every county in the state of Ohio has an ED office because the state sets it up that way. Cities are free to organize their own efforts within that framework as Delphos is now doing.
There is a root philosophical difference between our efforts and what the city of Van Wert wants to do. The city believes that the connection with Columbus through Ohio State is worth giving away local control of ED efforts. We believe that the regional approach Columbus endorses has not benefited our county in the past and will not in the future. Allowing local input has proved fruitful. Personally, I’ve come to the belief that, with two separate offices wanting to do entirely different things, perhaps we can work both angles. That system recently worked quite well.
When Advanced Biological Medical announced its $14 million Van Wert expansion last month, you may have caught this quote: “I have to give credit to local government,” CEO Dan Custiss said. “I’ve never seen anything happen this fast.” He was thanking both the city ED for its initial involvement and the county ED for finding some additional funding at the end and for helping in the tax abatement process.
It may have taken some unpleasantness, but, even in hindsight, there was no way to avoid that and still create what is now taking place. With the shaking and rattling in the rearview mirror, it’s time to roll, and there is more thought and energy currently involved in that than we had thought possible when we started down this path.