Finally, it can begin. After a couple years of adjusting the power structure and reorganizing and combining efforts, 2017 purports to be the birth of a new era. Local resident Stacy Adam takes the helm as Director of the Van Wert Area Economic Development Corporation (VWAEDC – still trying to get people to pronounce it Vwadik but that hasn’t caught on yet.) Adam is currently organizing the land bank efforts and establishing the office at 145 E. Main St., VWAEDC’s new home, ahead of the larger tasks that lay ahead.

The VWAEDC Board of Trustees chose Adam after interviewing several candidates from within and from outside the county. The unanimous decision for the hire was based more on Adam’s impressive corporate background and presence at the bargaining table than her economic development experience. As a member of that group, I think I speak for all of us when I say it was a great satisfaction to hire such a highly qualified candidate and a great relief to end the process of weekly meetings, which had gone on for nearly six months.

The Board, along with the city and county governments, now hope to fade into the background as this private-public hybrid grows into its own thing. I will be participating along with many others who have been involved in the process, but it will be more as a community member than as a county commissioner.

In the interviewing of candidates for the director position, it was clear that everyone in the area already knows what we know – economic development has become a population and workforce challenge in Northwest Ohio and the rest of the rural Midwest. What we didn’t hear in the interviews was any solution to this problem that we hadn’t already come up with ourselves. Actually, I think we are already ahead of neighboring counties in addressing these problems.

Consider the recent expansion at Vantage and introduction of Northwest State as our designated community college. Also, the effort led by Principle (and VWAEDC Board member) Bob Priest at Van Wert High School to institute a career readiness program that offers an alternative to college, keeping many from incurring a $100k debt for a degree that would earn them a job paying no better than what is already available locally through certificate course training. The county schools aren’t far behind and Middle School Physics has shown some promise in its short tenure. There will be a jobs website soon – Van Wert Works. We have taken what we have learned over the past several years and are in the process of creating something new and unique.

This uniqueness is furthered in our director hire. Most economic development directors start in the public sector or in education. The pay is usually not enough to draw someone from the corporate world where talent is better compensated. More often, a successful economic director is lured away. After an accomplished business career, Adam is available to us now only because she loves this community. As director, she brings to Van Wert a different and more substantive viewpoint than those that head most nearby economic development efforts.

All of this momentum is moot without a sense of community, however, and that is what we really hope to be building. Immediate economic success does not necessarily mean long term growth. Even if we landed a Honda or Tesla manufacturing center on the Megasite, that would only be part of the big picture. Flint, Michigan no doubt thought all of its problems were solved seventy years ago with the influx of auto jobs. Now it only makes the news when its water turns to poison.

And it’s no secret that we have an aging population. There are talented young people in every high school graduating class and we’re certainly not going to keep them all, but we need to start keeping more of them. Twenty years from now, it would be better to have twenty companies that employ fifty people each than one company that employs a thousand. Small businesses aren’t planted, though, they come from local innovators.

Young people don’t hold all the potential. I spent years working in factories and in construction before going to law school. Not in management – I was running a press and setting steel. In that time, I met people every bit as smart as the attorneys I deal with now. Most times the difference that kept them from a business career was an aversion to classrooms or corporate politics. There were people with ideas and drive but no good outlet for it. Many of these people had their own business ideas and were perfectly capable of making it happen. If you are one of these, you could be just as significant as the young people we are trying to keep.

There is a place to start. The upcoming Entrepreneurship Fair will take place Saturday, January 21 at Vantage beginning at 8 A.M.. There is no commitment, money or expectations involved. Anyone thinking they would like to start a business can hang out for a few hours, drink some free coffee and listen to what it takes from people who have been through it. Just learning what is involved in hiring an employee would have been extremely helpful for me when I opened a law office.

The new business challenge will follow in the weeks after the Fair. Past winners of the challenge have garnered prizes of $2,500 for going through the process and developing a business plan. At worst, a participant will have something at the end that can be taken to a bank for financing.

Your community needs your involvement, whether it is leading an economic development committee or starting a small business. Who knows? Maybe years from now, you can look back and say it all happened in early 2017, year zero for the new Van Wert.