The first thing a stranger might see exiting US 30 east of Van Wert and turning toward the city is what appears to be our county’s college campus. To an outsider, the Starr Commonwealth presents as the Ivy League in miniature. And that’s just the part you can see from Lincoln Highway, excluding the five cottages hidden back in the woods. But not only is it not a college campus, it is also entirely empty.
The Starr quit servicing troubled youth four or five years ago, a victim of the economic collapse. When I campaigned for commissioner, I spoke of bringing a college presence to the county. People naturally thought of the Starr – and began talking about the Starr. They talked so much that, even though I hadn’t mentioned the possibility, a member of the Starr board called me to request that I quit proposing the campus because it wasn’t for sale.
The Starr wasn’t on my radar then because it was just too big for a starter campus. There’s a certain economy to things. I had something smaller in mind – a couple rooms and a few classes at Vantage or one of the high schools and building from there. Wright State in Celina started in one room and as a branch of Ohio Northern.
With some outside-the-box thinking by one of my comrades, however, it may be time to dream big.
Bred in conversations we were having with Ohio State Extension and, to put it bluntly, from some ongoing problems we’ve had with that institution, Commissioner Lichtensteiger had an idea. Why not an agricultural research center at the Starr Campus? Ohio State Extension has five or six of these throughout the state but none near here.
At its other agricultural research centers, Extension experiments with hybrids, pesticides, soils, rotation – all things farm. Such a center can provide certifications for fertilizer and pesticide applicators. It can be a regional center for things like 4H and provide endless opportunities in an agricultural community such as ours.
Not to say the stars (no pun intended) seem to be aligning for this, but there are several factors that elevate Thad’s idea from one great in theory to one great in practice and they are all occurring here at once. I will briefly list these factors then spend the rest of this article and next week’s trying to explain what it all means.
First and foremost, the Starr is suddenly for sale or lease. Its board sold its surrounding 130 acres of farmland at auction to the Marsh Foundation earlier this year and is ready to do something with the campus. Although the price is being held close to the vest, it has been appraised and its board is ok with me telling you that it is available, so I shouldn’t get any calls about that.
Second, the levy for OSU Extension, which has supplied it around $200,000 of county tax dollars annually for the last several years, is up for ballot renewal next year. Third, we are one of the state’s leading agricultural counties inside a region with a unique problem ripe for intensive research– algae. Fourth, there is a new Dean of Agriculture at Ohio State who is seemingly inclined toward endeavors such as this.
Fifth, the county has experience in this type of agricultural research through its Farm Focus years. Sixth, there is plenty of farmland nearby the Starr that could be made available to OSU Extension for experimentation.
Seventh, the OSU Lima campus has had a steady decline in enrollment for years (more on this next week). Eighth, and most importantly for the college component in all of this, Northwest State was designated earlier this year as the county’s community college provider.
With these factors to discuss, Stan, Thad and I went to Farm Science Review last month to meet with OSU’s new Dean of Agriculture, Bruce McPheron. Tom Stuckey, the President of Northwest State, given a prior heads up on what we were going to propose, drove from Chicago to make that meeting.
OSU saw merit in our presentation and has continued to express interest ever since. Representatives have been to visit the Starr and others are coming in a few weeks. Nothing has been discussed as far as price and long term financing, only the possibilities. Everyone involved so far sees incredible sense in all this.
The boost to the county’s number one industry is blatant. We would go from one of the leading agricultural counties in the state to, with Mercer and Putnam as regional partners, the center. The college implications are less obvious but as significant. With the presence of Ohio State, Northwest State can become something more than a normal county community college.
This is by no means a certain thing. There are a lot of moving pieces, as there are with anything of this magnitude. We are coming out with this now in hopes of generating community support and enthusiasm and maybe finding some other missing pieces that could help make this happen.
I’ve tried to sketch what is being considered here and will elaborate more next week. For those who would like to hear a general discussion about this, tune into 1220 AM Sunday morning at 8:20. If you miss that original broadcast, you can hear it after Sunday afternoon at go1220.com – click on the “Commissioner’s Corner” tab.