Let’s talk economic development and let’s be clear – economic development is, literally, everything. It’s the means to feed a family and the reason to stay where you are. It’s the possibility that your children might have a better life than you and might have it somewhere close. It’s the way a community looks and feels. Success in economic development is success in quality of life.
Last year in the Commissioners’ Office, we spent huge swaths of time trying to work with and around the failing system that had steamrolled its way through the past decade here. I’ve illustrated statistically the failure of that system but numbers aren’t really necessary for Van Wertians – we’ve lived it.
There were reasons I finally told the story of the undermining of our grant a couple of weeks ago. And yes, I’m well aware that once a story is told the teller loses control of it. But who could have anticipated the drama that played out – a reporter that doesn’t live in our county coming out strongly in defense of the right of another non-resident to torpedo a $100,000 grant applied for by the Van Wert County Commissioners’ office? (And using information so biased and poorly researched that the newspaper had to print three retractions.)
But because the story was told, things began to move – which was the original hope. We were able to meet with some members of Van Wert City Council in a calm setting (something impossible only months before) and publicly propose what we had long been suggesting in private – a combining of county and city economic development (ED) efforts in one office in a 50/50 partnership.
Oversight of the proposed new office would be the job of a controlling board made up of two county commissioners and two members from city government – we left it to the city to decide how their representatives are chosen. A fifth member would be unanimously selected from the business community by these four – you need an odd number to break ties. The budget for the office would be split equally between county and city.
The purpose of this controlling board is to manage the budget and the Director. The ED Director would only be hired or removed by a four-fifths vote. The reason for the super majority on hiring and firing is to provide stability in the office and protect it from the whims or changing of politicians.
We don’t want the day-to-day operations of the office to be interfered with or run by politicians – a fear some see in such a plan. (Which is worse, a politician or a lawyer, I’ve been asked.) We want it in a separate building with other ED agencies like Main Street Van Wert and the Convention and Visitors Bureau. We want the office working with and aiding the local business community – encouraging the people who know how to get things done to invest in our county with their own plans and schemes (and money).
Although we don’t want it run by politicians, we do want the office to be accountable. One big problem in the past set-up was the nonresponsive nature of the OSU Extension volunteer executive board. In the office we propose, if a citizen sees mismanagement or neglect, they can go to their elected official and complain. Complaints in the past met with apathy and avoidance, as we learned firsthand. But a politician ignores the disgruntled at his or her own peril, so by political necessity, this new office will be responsive to the community.
Some efforts may generate from inside the existing business community but for every good idea originating there, there’s another from somewhere on the outside just as good. We want those ideas just as much. The ED office will be responsible for enabling people – for helping put groups together to work and become invested in developing any worthy projects. This will be part of the mission statement. One thing I’ve learned through my year in office is that there is no shortage of ideas from outside the ED status quo – some good, some bad, but all have been mostly ignored.
A further focus in this new office will be grant applications. State and federal grants are more available than ever but they need pursued – they don’t just fall from the sky. The administrative fees from any grant moneys received can save costs in the ED office and to taxpayers. Matching a good idea with a grant, as we did in our office last year, can pour money into our community, which is really just getting our tax dollars back before they’re wasted somewhere else. Mercer County has mastered this process – we need to catch up.
A note on the departure from Ohio State: Some people have raised the concern that we can’t afford to lose Ohio State because that would lose our connection with Columbus. Our ED connection with Columbus is through the Governor’s office and the leads from JobsOhio. Only a handful of counties use OSU for ED and those that don’t include Mercer, Auglaize, Putnam and Defiance Counties. Ohio State is an educational institution and the one thing it could provide, college courses, it has no interest in providing here – that would interfere with its Lima enrollment. (I’m patiently waiting for Aaron Craft or Urban Meyer to make an appearance as well.)
We’ve offered this initial framework. We believe this structure would get us to zero as opposed to the declining state of affairs of the last two decades. What can be built on top of that would be limited only by the ambition and imagination of the people of Van Wert County instead of the ambition and imagination of the power elite. Ain’t that the way it’s supposed to be?