The Van Wert County Courthouse

Friday, Jun. 14, 2024

Untangling economic development

We always did feel the same, we just started from a different point of view” – Bob Dylan.

I’ve used this lyric from my favorite Dylan song, “Tangled Up in Blue”, in a column before, but it fits better here. And to accurately quote the song, it would be “… started from a different point of view-w-w-w-w-w-w-w-w.”

By County Commissioner Todd Wolfrum
By County Commissioner Todd Wolfrum

And tangled up in blue pretty well sums up where we had been for much of last year waiting on the new city government to take its seat so we could start working on the combination of economic development efforts. We kept working our county programs, but the possibilities of this combination put some of our longer term efforts on hold.

Looking in from the outside, some have suggested that we just hire a new director and get moving. Slow down. We’re dealing with undercurrents in a county/city divide that date back so far that nobody involved right now really understands what caused it to begin with, only that there are residual contentions needing addressed before we forge ahead.

To illustrate, in the last month we’ve had conferences on combining the revolving loans. The city’s revolving loan has a few hundred thousand dollars in it and the committee supervising that loan is guarded, rightly so, about its use. The county’s fund, having been used to multiply grant dollars to help rebuild the villages and downtown Van Wert, is virtually exhausted.

The fund being exhausted is not a bad thing. Once a new project is available, more money can be acquired from the state. When the loan is paid back, it goes into the revolving loan fund for future loans or grants in the city or county. Exhaust the pot again and get more money from the state. That’s just how it’s designed to work.

The question for the two revolving loan committees is whether to unite the funds or keep them separate. Keeping them separate would allow two different sources to draw from but may make it difficult to continue to use the funds in grants to rebuild our villages. Further meetings with state officials are necessary to see what is possible, but this discussion is one of the problems being dealt with in the unification.

There’s even one holdover from the old city administration there to say, “It’s not my job to care about the rest of the county.” It’s good to have that voice at the meetings so everyone can hear the twang — it just doesn’t sound relevant to the conversation anymore. It may not be anyone’s job to care about anything, but everyone is starting to realize the county and city have a symbiotic relationship. One cannot be healthy if the other isn’t.

A philosophical divide comes in deciding if our biggest problem is lack of employers or lack of employees. This isn’t a county/city issue, but rather a mission issue that needs dealt with all the same. I have long argued that we have a demographic problem that is about to implode with the mass retirement of Baby Boomers and that problem is region-wide. The other side of that argument is “build it and they will come.”

Consensus on this issue is necessary to create a job description for a director. Is the most important goal drawing new business or working with education to create a workforce and keep our young people here? Of course, in the end, there will be some hybrid of the two. It may even be that the schools become involved to the point that a director need not be as heavily concerned with the workforce end of it. Our school administrations have been included in our discussions and already are developing their own programs.

Mayor Jerry Mazur has been quoted several times as saying that we need to bring someone in from the outside with proven success in economic development. While I understand the rationale, I’m not sold that the person needs to be from the outside. I’m of the opinion that the director needs to have a passion for our community. A hometown person has worked well for Mercer County. I don’t know how someone comes from the outside and develops the requisite concern for the entire county, but I’m willing to listen on that point as well as the others. It’s a discussion and most of the city representatives are willing to listen to us too.

That’s the key right now — everyone is willing to compromise. Working from the premise that getting this done is more important than any of the obstacles, we’ve established an interim board. This group is charged with forming a non-profit corporate structure for the eventual combined effort, which will be sent to City Council and the county commissioners for approval. The interim board will also try to define the roles of the permanent board, subsidiary efforts, and job description for the director. We’ve set a deadline of the end of March for these tasks.

All of this reminds me of a scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Butch is challenged by a member of his gang, Harvey, to a knife fight. Harvey is ready to fight when Butch says, “Not so fast, not until we get the rules straight.” Harvey: “Rules? In a knife fight? There’s no rules.” Butch, already walking toward Harvey: “Well, if there isn’t going to be any rules let’s get the fight started, someone count one, two, three, go.” Sundance counts quickly and before the dumbfounded Harvey figures out what’s happening, Butch kicks him in the groin and knocks him out with a roundhouse.

We’ve suffered through 20 years of steady economic decline. Taking some time to get the rules straight so no one gets kicked in the groin and round-housed is what is happening now and it’s moving along.

Last week, in a personal triumph for my first term in office, Convoy, Middle Point, Ohio City, Willshire, and Wren sent a joint delegation to demand that the villages be represented at the table, worried that there could be a return to the status quo that excluded our rural areas entirely. Van Wert City Council has also requested involvement. It’s hard to find people that don’t want a seat at the table.

Everyone that wants a role will have one in the end. No longer is economic development listening to lectures and the elite handing out awards to each other once a year. All I knew when we started down this path was that what existed had become institutionally stale. I never would have predicted this much life still existed underneath it all. But it does.

POSTED: 02/15/16 at 8:54 am. FILED UNDER: Opinions