The Van Wert County Courthouse

Thursday, May. 28, 2020

Questions drive development debate

DAVE MOSIER/independent editor

Van Wert County Commissioner Clair Dudgeon makes a point during a discussion of the county's economic development office on Thursday. (Dave Mosier/Van Wert independent)

A number of local economic development officials joined with members of Van Wert City Council to discuss the possibility of ending a decade-long contract with the Ohio State University Extension relating to the county’s economic development director.

Delphos Safety-Service Director Greg Berquist, who also is president of the Van Wert County Economic Development Advisory Group, noted that, pursuant to a request from the Advisory Council, he had talked to OSU Extension officials about the current economic development contract between the county and Extension.

Berquist noted that OSU Extension officials were amenable to amending the current contract, as well as the job duties of the economic director’s position.

Current Economic Director Sarah Smith provided an overview of her position to begin the meeting, which was held in Council Chambers Thursday morning. Smith provided a job description for her position sent out by the Extension showing that statewide and regional Extension development duties must take up at least 35 percent of her time, while she must also work collaboratively with other Extension agents in the other program areas (4-H Youth Development, Agriculture & Natural Resources and Family and Consumer Sciences).

In fact, Smith said, the position’s official name is County Extension educator-economic development, which she said emphasizes the teaching portion of the position over economic development duties. She also handed out a job announcement the Extension service distributed when hiring for the position.

“If you read through the job announcement, you will notice that a lot of the things in the job announcement have to do with education,” she noted, adding that teaching duties can often supersede economic development responsibilities.

Having OSU Extension hire and train local economic development directors was deemed a positive back in 1999, after a number of development directors hired locally either quit after a year or two or were unproductive — or both. The hiring of Nancy Bowen in 1999 did bring more stability — and effectiveness — to local economic development.

However, many local officials today are chaffing at the amount of control OSU Extension has over the local program, redirecting much of position’s duties outside the county, or to areas not related to local economic development.

In essence, the Extension hires what it calls “economic development educators” with limited input from local representatives and then provides much of the direction of those hired. Although Berquist admitted the local Economic Development Advisory Group is somewhat to blame for the situation, since the contract with OSU Extension states that the Advisory Group will develop job standards and goals for the position, the contract also states: “The Economic Development Agent shall be at all times, under the supervision of the University, with guidance of economic development activities and the needs assessment as determined annually through the Economic Development Advisory Group.”

Councilman At-Large Stan Agler was appalled at the amount of control that OSU has over the local development position, while other members of City Council also bridled at the lack of local control over the position.

However, while a number of local officials, including County Commissioner Thad Lichtensteiger, stated their wish that the county return to hiring its own economic development director, the sticking point, as usual, is funding.

Currently, OSU provides benefits for the economic development position, approximately 27 percent of the position’s total remuneration, as well as additional funding and training. City Auditor Martha Balyeat estimated that the county would need approximately $130,000 to fund the local development office, which includes Smith and Darlene Myers, who handles a number of development duties, including administration of the Revolving Loan funds.

While the hotel-motel tax, coupled with funding from the city, county and City of Delphos, would provide approximately $147,000 in 2011, there wouldn’t have been enough money to fund the program in either 2009 or 2010, prior to the building of a new hotel in the community. That could also be the case this year, since hotel room usage has been down, according to the owner of the two biggest hotels in Van Wert.

While several suggestions were made on how to increase funding for the program, including a public-private partnership with area businesses, Mayor Don Farmer appeared concerned about how the program would be maintained, financially.

Following Thursday’s discussion, it was agreed to meet with OSU Extension officials to see what concessions they might make to cede more control of the program to local officials. Berquist is to set up a meeting to that effect.

POSTED: 06/29/12 at 6:51 am. FILED UNDER: News