The Van Wert County Courthouse

Saturday, Jan. 22, 2022

Community econ. develop. efforts

There is an old Chevy Chase movie called Funny Farm where Chase’s character retires with his wife to the country to live outside a quiet small town and write a novel. It being a comedy, of course, the town is not what he had expected, full of oddball characters, including a drunk mailman who delivers the mail every day by throwing it out his truck window as he speeds by and honks.

By County Commissioner Todd Wolfrum
By County Commissioner Todd Wolfrum

Chase decides to sell his house but he knows that no legitimate buyer would be willing to live next to the misfits of this town. So he pays the town folk to act normal for a few days while he shows the prospective buyers around, giving the townies Norman Rockwell pictures to help them envision how they should be. Chase was doing temporary community development.

Community development, short and simple, is creating a place where people want to live. For decades, economic development has been bringing in industry and employers, offering incentives and anything else that might get a business here. In an area that lacks people and workforce, community development is an alternative approach.

Every community in the Midwest is offering incentives. We all have land and industrial parks and we all have arranged access to necessary utilities and highways. And we, this “we” being basically every rural community in America, are all vying for the same ever smaller slice of the pie — most companies find the people they need in the big cities and most of our young people are finding the fun and the companies to employ them in the big cities.

To attract both employers and young people here, we need to be a more interesting place to live than the communities around us.

In the new Van Wert Area Economic Development Corporation (VWAED), a focus is being placed on subcommittees to achieve the goals of community development. The VWAED will have a governing board and eventually there will be a director, but all of that is unimportant without a countywide buy-in to the effort. The buy-in can happen through membership in VWAED and involvement in a subcommittee.

To illustrate, consider Main Street Van Wert. That program focuses entirely on downtown Van Wert. It has never really been part of the economic development offices in town. It has its own board and, although it receives funding from the county and the city, it sets its own budget and acts independently. This is a prototype of a VWAED subcommittee.

Not everyone is interested in Main Street and not everyone needs to be. But the people who are have a conduit to become involved and support the effort with energy, ideas, and investment. The subcommittee concept promotes the principle that there is no greater effort a person will put into something than when they personally believe that their involvement is important.

The Business Development Corporation could be seen as a subcommittee that pursues traditional economic efforts, something that will always be needed. There are already networks between schools and business being formed that resemble a workforce subcommittee. Our villages would be well suited to join forces for mutual support in another such association.

But think smaller. I’ve heard hundreds of times how we need more and better restaurants. But are there people who want to work on that project? Perhaps a group could form to court investment and franchises and maybe meet to eat at one of our existing restaurants once a week.

My personal small interest objective is a chess club. Something like that would be a draw to a small number of people, but it would be a strong draw for them and would add ambiance to downtown, especially if it were at a storefront where you could walk over to Collins’ new wine store for a drink in the evening.

What is developing is an opportunity for anyone to get involved. My biggest complaint about the old economic development effort was how closed it was (well, one of my biggest complaints). Initially, we had taken a few things we wanted to try to the existing board and were told we would have to wait until it was given proper consideration, whatever that meant. There will be no wait time now.

If you’ve got something you want to make happen in this community, the goal of the VWAED Corporation will be to help you connect with other people who have that interest. If there is enough enthusiasm to support a viable project, it will be the director’s job to help the project along. Proof of viability will be your burden. If there are only three kooks who like an idea, it likely will fail at the concept stage — I’m thinking of myself and the other two people in town that like to play chess.

There is an undercurrent of growing pride in Van Wert County on which to capitalize. And I say this not as a vague, touchy-feely concept of a sense I get on the street. I say it as a recital of numbers. Our sales tax receipts have been going steadily up for the last two years, meaning people are buying local and supporting our business.

Further, I got a call from a reporter a few months ago asking me how I felt about our county being the only one in the region that increased in population in 2015. This wasn’t a census year so I don’t know how they figured the numbers, but just hearing that our population might be holding steady sounded sweet. And could some of that be because of the PAC and the Wassenberg — two of the best community development efforts in the region in the last several years?

Nobody is going to pay us to seem like an incredible place to live as Chevy Chase did in the movies. We have to do it ourselves, and it has to come from, and become part of, the fabric of our county.

POSTED: 05/30/16 at 6:49 am. FILED UNDER: Opinions