The Van Wert County Courthouse

Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022

VW development stakeholders speak out

DAVE MOSIER/independent editor

Vantage Career Center Superintendent Staci Kaufman speaks during a meeting on economic development held Tuesday in the county commissioners' office. (Dave Mosier/Van Wert independent)
Vantage Career Center Superintendent Staci Kaufman speaks during a meeting on economic development held Tuesday in the county commissioners’ office. (Dave Mosier/Van Wert independent)

While a meeting held Tuesday shows that people are passionate about economic development — some perhaps a bit too passionate — it was also clear that stakeholders were not on the same page, when it comes to defining just what a successful development program should be.

The Van Wert County Board of Commissioners met with members of Van Wert City Council, Mayor Don Farmer, members of the Van Wert County Economic Development Advisory Group and local business leaders to discuss economic development efforts.

Commissioners Thad Lichtensteiger, Todd Wolfrum and Stan Owens first talked about their frustrations with the current economic development set-up and the possibility of ending, at least for their part, the relationship with the Ohio State University Extension program now in place.

Currently, the OSU Extension provides a number of development tools to the county, as well as recruiting development staff, and provides significant financial support for the program, paying any portion of the salary of the development director above $40,000, as well as the director’s benefits. Other costs are paid using revenues from the county hotel-motel tax.

For their part, Lichtensteiger, Wolfrum and Owens say they feel there is a lack of local control over the system put in place by the OSU Extension nearly two decades ago, citing the firing of Sarah Smith last year by OSU without any input from local officials as an example of that lack of control.

Although several others, including Van Wert Councilman At-Large Jeff Agler, were also angry about Smith’s firing, not everyone at the table agreed there was no local control over the economic development program. Denise Frey of First Financial Bank, the current advisory group chair, noted that, while Ohio State retains the right to hire and fire local development office staff, the operation of the office is, otherwise, under local control.

In addition, both Frey and Jon Rhoades, president of the Van Wert Community Improvement Corporation (CIC), said that local stakeholders were involved in the hiring of development directors, including current director Cindy Leis. Rhoades said that, while OSU selects candidates through its recruiting program, local officials could have rejected any and all candidates, if they chose.

Vantage Superintendent Staci Kaufman, vice chair of the advisory group, also noted that she felt the commissioners “blindsided” that group when they hired Smith as their own business outreach coordinator, separate from the local development office.

Lichtensteiger said he and his fellow commissioners felt that move was necessary because no one was doing anything to seek jobs for the county’s smaller communities, such as Convoy, Ohio City and Middle Point, but were focusing mostly on the city of Van Wert.

“Our small towns are horrible, as far as what has happened with economic development,” Lichtensteiger added.

Although the commissioners say they have attempted to work with Leis and her office, having two separate development programs has caused some friction, with Mayor Farmer noting that Smith and a county representative talked to a couple of local companies prior to a Business Retention & Expansion visit by Leis and BR&E Committee members, which he said gave the impression that local development efforts were not on the same page.

“I was embarrassed,” the mayor said.

Several local business people, including contractor Tom Alexander, Pat Ryan of Citizens National Bank and Gary Clay of Van Wert Federal Savings Bank, said they support the current development program, with Alexander, with decades of development experience, stating his opinion the county has had more successes under the OSU program than from earlier development efforts.

Ryan, who said he has been on BR&E visits with all of the OSU Extension development directors, noted his opinion that Leis is the most knowledgeable director the county has had, while Rhoades, a longtime development volunteer, added his opinion that the OSU program has provided more successes than any earlier local development effort.

Longtime development stakeholder Bernie Nieman also said he felt now was not the time to dump the OSU program, especially with the Jobs Ready Site nearly ready for marketing.

City Councilman At-Large Stan Agler voiced some of City Council members’ frustration that they are not more involved in the development process, with Agler noting that Council does not have a seat on the advisory group’s executive board — which administers the local development program. Jeff Agler also was unhappy with the fact that Council is not kept informed on what is happening with local development, stating that he often finds out a new business is coming to town through the grapevine, rather from local development officials.

Frey stated that, while the city does have representation on the executive committee, she also noted that Lichtensteiger and County Treasurer Bev Fuerst represent the county on the committee. “It is an equal agreement across the board,” Frey said.

The commissioners did not agree, though, with Lichtensteiger noting after the meeting that Mayor Farmer is the only member of that board who is privy to development leads coming into Leis’ office, something he feels should be provided to all members of the executive board.

Although the meeting included some acrimony, all of those attending stated their opinion that all of the various entities must work together if economic development is to work locally.

Third Ward Councilman Stuart Jewett perhaps put it best. “The choir sounds best when everybody’s harmonizing,” he told the group.

Frey also noted that, if the commissioners and others feel the current program isn’t working as well as they would like, the program guidelines could be changed.

Local auto dealer Andy Czajkowski was more blunt in his opinion that local officials need to stop living in the past and find some common ground to further development efforts. “How do we move forward? We’re looking in the rear-view mirror,” Czajkowski told those at the meeting.

Although no final decisions were made at the meeting, most of those at the table agreed that all stakeholders needed to work together in furthering development efforts, while better communication was needed to accomplish that goal.

POSTED: 07/31/13 at 8:11 am. FILED UNDER: News