BY ED GEBERT
Times Bulletin Editor
VAN WERT - In a shocking move, the Van Wert County Commissioners on Thursday announced that they are exiting the contract with Ohio State University Extension for an economic development office. The commissioners made the announcement to tell the county about the office's notification to OSU Extension in Columbus.
"The commissioners no longer see the advantages of the relationship," the commissioners wrote in a released statement. "The commissioners are excited about the possibilities this change will introduce. It introduces a new paradigm for community and economic development in our county that will controlled at the local level."
However, there are questions about whether or not the commissioners' actions will actually cancel the contract. The original contract with OSU Extension dates back to May 21, 2002 when the deal was signed by six persons, only one of whom was representing the county commissioners' office. Also, the contract stipulates that the agreement can be canceled by either side with a one-year notice.
For the commissioners, the move is about restoring local control.Commissioner Thad Lichtensteiger stated, "I think not being bogged down in a comprehensive committee structure is a big advantage. We need to be more flexible and reactive."
The commissioners did not put forward a replacement plan, saying the next economic development effort will take shape once the City of Van Wert decides if it wants to be a part of a new board. Also decisions would be expected from several other groups, including the Community Improvement Corporation, Business Development Corporation, Main Street Van Wert, the Convention and Visitor's Bureau, and the Van Wert Area Chamber of Commerce.
"We look around the county, and we don't see the growth we'd like to see," Lichtensteiger said. "We see the continuing exodus of businesses and people, and we think it's time for a new approach. We use this [OSU Extension] because it's the status quo, but we don't see the status quo being effective... We don't see this system as being advantageous although it was at one time."
It was noted that this move by the commissioners would have no effect on 4-H or any other extension programs within the county.
The relationship between the county and OSU Extension has been a rocky one since former County Economic Development Director Sarah Smith was fired in July 2012. Lichtensteiger had been one of the loudest critics of OSU firing the director without the knowledge or agreement of county officials. Cindy Leis was hired to take the position beginning January 2013. In May, Smith was hired by the county as the county business outreach coordinator.
The idea of breaking with OSU Extension was brought forward by the commissioners in a July 30, 2013 meeting with Van Wert City Council and other local economic development partners. No consensus was reached in that summit meeting that featured many angry comments from several local leaders.
In the months since Smith was brought into the county's economic development efforts, some have reported confusion over the presence of two offices, and many have reported disagreements between Leis' office and Smith's office.
Smith confirmed on Thursday, "For the past seven months, there's been constant bickering and confusion and things aren't working, so we have to do something different. We have to do something more."
A statement from Commissioner Todd Wolfrum is printed in today's Opinion section which is printed beginning on page A4. In in, he compares population figures of surrounding counties to Van Wert County and writes about the county's population drop, "We are not placing blame for what has happened here squarely on the OSU Extension system. What we can say is that the system didn't prevent it and doesn't appear to be preventing it's continuation."
Commissioner Stan Owens stressed the need for a new structure of some sort using current businesspeople for sound advice.
"We need to streamline the structure for getting things done here rather than everything needing to go to one select group that want to determine what gets done and what doesn't," Owens commented.
The Van Wert County Economic Development Office is funded from three entities: The City of Van Wert, who pays 60 percent through the hotel-motel tax collected, OSU Extension, which contributes 30 percent of the funding for the office, and Van Wert County, whose contribution is 10 percent of the total.
The effort is guided locally by the county's Economic Development Advisory Board which features equal representation between county and city. Lichtensteiger is a part of that group, as is Van Wert Mayor Don Farmer.
The current president of the advisory board, Staci Kaufman, noted that pulling out of the agreement is the county's prerogative, but did note that the one-year notice clause would seem to indicate that they had breached the agreement itself.
Kaufman defended the system under OSU Extension. She commented, "The Economic Development Advisory Committee believes in the strengths of the agreement with the OSU Extension, that it is a solid system, and that it will lead the county in the right direction. The path we go down from this point on will require some discussion with the county commissioners as to their plans for county economic development and defining the roles of the entities involved."
The commissioners emphasized that they don't have a specific plan to propose at this point and will not until the city decides on its next move. A timetable for that decision has not been set. Farmer offered no comment Thursday evening.
Wolfrum explained, "We don't want to be in charge of economic development, we just want someone to be accountable for results. If a system isn't working, that person is accountable for it. Because we're accountable to the people we represent, so somebody should be accountable to us."