The city and county clashed over the Economic Development department during 2013. Van Wert County commissioners pulled their support from the office, but the city has yet to make a final decision on the future of OSU Extension and Van Wert Economic Development efforts. (TB File Photo)
As we move from 2013 to 2014, we take time to look back at the top stories of the past year. Van Wert County saw events that were controversial, positive, terrifying, and disappointing during the 12 months. It certainly was not a boring year, and the candidates for the top ten stories of the year were widely varied. Choosing the top stories is never easy since one story will affect people quite differently, and some stories which generate little interest from the public actually have great impact on everyone. So the rankings are subjective, based on both community discussion and overall impact on the people of Van Wert County. We finish up today with stories three through one.
For years, the biggest need in Van Wert County has been jobs. A county which once had a healthy number of manufacturing positions was hamstrung by the cut in the automotive business and by improvements in automation in the manufacturing sector. The county partnered with Ohio State University Extension in the early part of this century to help bring the assets and location of Van Wert County into the vision of prospective employers, encourage new business, and to support and strengthen those employers already in business here. While there are many successes, for some there is not enough to show for this cooperation. At the end of November, the Van Wert County Commissioners decided that they wanted no part of this arrangement, and an economic development situation in the county was thrown further into disarray. Disarray is nothing new to economic development in the county, as disarray may be the word to best describe the total efforts in Van Wert County in 2013.
The disarray actually began in 2012 when Ohio State Extension fired the person hired weeks before as Economic Development director, Sarah Smith. Many people involved in the economic development effort cried foul when Smith was dismissed without the approval or consent of anyone in Van Wert County. After much discussion, an agreement was made to continue the relationship with OSU Extension and after another extensive search process, the county welcomed Cindy Leis on Jan. 8 to take over in the office which had been vacant for nearly six months.
This solution became complicated in May when the commissioners decided to throw some county money into the budget for another person in economic development. That person was Sarah Smith — the same person who spent a few weeks in the OSU Extension position the year before. Smith was hired as the county business outreach coordinator, but from the beginning there were many complications and hostilities between Smith and the Economic Development Office.
The commissioners noted that Smith would especially target areas outside of the city of Van Wert as well as seeing companies in the region who may be interested in expansion. The two offices continued to work through the rest of the year, but an announcement was in the works.
That announcement came Dec. 5 when the commissioners stated that they were pulling the county out of the agreement with OSU Extension. The commissioners claimed that this would end the agreement outright, despite the presence of a one-year requirement for notification of cancellation written into the contract. Commissioner Thad Lichtensteiger stated that the main reason for the move was so that the county could get back control of the economic development effort; an obvious reference to Smith’s firing in 2012. No specific replacement plan for economic development was put forward by the commissioners while they wait to see what the city of Van Wert will do. The city has not publicly discussed the options, but it has been noted that the county had only been paying 10 percent of the cost for the economic development office while the city and OSU Extension pick up 90 percent of the cost. If those entities decide to pick up the remainder of the cost, both the county and the city/OSU Extension could have what would amount to competing efforts running simultaneously, further complicating the efforts to land employers and fill the soon-to-be certified job-ready supersite north of the city. The commissioners, being charged by state law to be responsible for economic development for the county could face competition from the office that has been at work for more than a decade.
Where this story will end is anyone’s guess. But for the sake of local residents hoping for an influx of new jobs to the county, each side is going to have to learn to work together or get together, regardless of who wins.