June 2000 // Volume 38 // Number 3 // Feature Articles // 3FEA3

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The Cooperative Extension Service's Role in Running a Successful County Economic Development Program

Through the years, the role of a county Cooperative Extension agent has changed somewhat. Originally dealing with agriculture and home economics education, Extension agents now get involved in managing economic development programs for counties. This article discusses the evolution of an extension agent's role in an assigned county from agriculture and home economics education to youth development and community economic development. Specifics are provided on one Community Economic Development Agent's role in filling the economic development programming needs in a rural North Central Ohio county.

John B. Conglose
Assistant Professor
Ohio State University Extension
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio
Internet address: conglose.1@osu.edu

The Mission of Cooperative Extension Service

When the Cooperative Extension Service was first established in the early 1900's, Cooperative Extension agents represented the state's Land Grant University in each of the counties throughout a particular state. A Cooperative Extension agent primarily served as an instructor in both agriculture and home economics. The agent provided assistance ranging from educational training to farmers throughout the county, to providing youth development opportunities throughout rural America. In most cases only one agent was assigned to a particular county.

That one agent handled all of the responsibilities mandated to the Cooperative Extension Service under the Smith-Lever Act of 1914. The mission mandated by the Smith-Lever Act was "to aid in diffusing among the people of the United States useful and practical information on subjects relating to agriculture and home economics, and to encourage the application of the same." This mission has evolved somewhat through the years to now state that "Extension shall enable people to improve the lives and communities through learning partnerships that put knowledge to work" (Extension Committee on Organization and Policy, 1995).

The mission of the Cooperative Extension Service was eventually interpreted so that educational training and assistance was provided in four areas. These four areas are Agriculture, Home Economics, or what is now referred to as Family and Consumer Sciences, 4 H-Youth Development, and Community Development. As the years went on, agent positions were created for each of these subject areas. Many counties throughout the Cooperative Extension System have agents teaching in one or more of these categories.

In Ohio, The Ohio State University is designated as the state's Land Grant University. The Ohio State University provides Cooperative Extension programs and services through the Ohio State University Extension Service. Offices are located in each of Ohio's 88 counties. Agents provide instruction in the four categories previously mentioned.

The Role of Community Development Agents in Ohio

The Community Development Division of the Ohio State University Extension Service helps individuals and communities to identify and meet local needs with useful information, educational programming, planning, and practical implementation through collaborative efforts with individuals, organizations, and groups to enhance the wellbeing of communities. In Ohio agents work in two areas: Community Development and Community Economic Development. A Community Development Agent works on programming activities related to the overall wellbeing of a community. A Community Economic Development Agent works on programming focused on improving the local economy.

In 1994, the Ohio State University Extension, Community Development Division developed a 5-year strategic plan for carrying out programming activities. The division identified four critical services that Community Development and Community Economic Development Agents were to perform in developing county programs:

1. Provide a perspective on local development issues.
2. Increase the knowledge base for individual and community decisions.
3. Develop the skills necessary to achieve individual and community goals.
4. Help to shape the decision-making environment.

Each agent assigned to a county is asked to develop a program for either Community Development or Community Economic Development or both. This depends on the focus that was desired by a particular county when its agent position was developed.

Economic Development in Huron County, Ohio

Huron County, Ohio, is located in rural North Central Ohio, between the Cleveland and Toledo metropolitan areas. The city of Norwalk is the county seat. With 3 cities, 7 villages, and 19 townships, the county has a variety of political subdivisions.

While the county is primarily agricultural, its population centers are home to numerous, sizeable industrial plants, including national manufacturers R. R. Donnelly and Sons, an international publishing house; Pepperidge Farm, Inc., makers of brand-name cookies and biscuits; and Midwest Industries, a nationally known manufacturer of lawn and garden equipment. Also located in the county are homegrown companies such as Norwalk Furniture Company and Geotrac, Inc. a flood plain mapping company. Other manufacturers include Janesville Products Company and Industrial Powder Coatings, Inc., two auto-related industries. Two railroads operate regional yard operations in the county. In the city of Willard there is the CSX railroad, and in Bellevue there is the Norfolk Southern operations. Huron County is also on the southern fringe of the Lake Erie vacation area.

Huron County is primarily rural in nature, with an estimated population of 58,000 located throughout a land area consisting of approximately 500 square miles. Despite all of the advantages mentioned above, the county has suffered from chronically high unemployment. The latest figure on the unemployment rate is 6.5%. This figure is higher than the rate for any of the neighboring counties and is also one of the highest throughout Ohio. 1990 Census Data information indicates the median household income in 1990 for Huron County was $27,401. Although this figure increased since 1980, it was $1,305 less than the statewide median of $28,706.

Before a Cooperative Extension agent was assigned to Huron County, the economic development program for the county was in disarray. The countywide economic development organization called itself "HECDEC," or The Huron County Educational and Economic Development Council. This organization was created in 1983 by county political leaders, including the Huron County Commissioners.

At the time of its creation, HECDEC was an organization whose intentions were good; however, eventually things went wrong. HECDEC always had problems with funding and credibility. Economic development was new to a lot of people in the county. Political and civic leaders had difficulty buying into the concept of a countywide economic development organization. The organization was established as a partnership among communities, businesses, and industries throughout the county. However, a number of key players in the county failed to buy into the concept.

The financial structure of HECDEC was directly tied to the need for all of the communities throughout Huron County participating and contributing financially to the organization. Because several of the communities failed to contribute, HECDEC had difficulty raising funds that were necessary to run an effective economic development organization.

Because of the lack of funding, HECDEC could not pay for a full-time director. What ensued was a series of part-time directors operating on "shoe string" budgets that weren't very successful in supporting economic development services throughout the county. This was especially trying because during the 1980's the local economy had suffered several major losses, with plant closings and other service-type establishments closing doors. HECDEC finally reached a low point in 1992, when several of the utility companies and lending institutions pulled funding from the organization because of concerns relating to the effectiveness of the operation. The executive director eventually resigned to seek other employment opportunities, and HECDEC began losing members.

In 1993, HECDEC was down to 12 members. At an organizational meeting, one of the utility company representatives began an effort to restructure the organization. This individual was a graduate of The Ohio State University and was aware of the services that were provided by the Ohio State University Extension Service. After working with the chairman of the Huron County Extension Office and other representatives of Ohio State University Extension, a partnership was developed among HECDEC, the Huron County Commissioners, and the university.

The Huron County Commissioners agreed to provide office space for the organization and to fund an additional agent position through the county Extension office. Ohio State University Extension agreed to provide secretarial services and a professionally trained Community Economic Development Agent to the county. The remaining members of HECDEC agreed to provide additional funding to get the operation running again. In July of 1994, a full-time Community Economic Development Agent was hired by the university to provide educational programming to the county.

A New Beginning for Economic Development in Huron County

New Community Economic Development Agent

On July 1, 1994, the new Community Economic Development Agent came on board. The agent's assignment was to take over the reigns of the countywide economic development agency by serving as its executive director. The mission of the agent was to increase HECDEC membership, raise operating funds, and develop an economic development program for Huron County.

After spending time getting to know some of the players, organizing the office, and learning the geography of the county, the agent got to work developing a program. The agent met with HECDEC members at a general meeting and identified immediate needs of the organization, things that needed to be accomplished over the next six months, and longer-term goals that needed to be completed over a period of 1 to 3 years. Input and suggestions were also obtained from the board members. What resulted was the development of a strategic plan for the organization that was to be reviewed on an annual basis.

New Name

One of the first things done was to rename the organization to eliminate the negative connotations that had developed through the years around the old HECDEC logo and name. The new name of the organization was the Huron County Development Council, or HCDC. The members of the organization decided that new marketing materials would be developed to establish the new identity. A color scheme of scarlet and grey was to be utilized in all of the marketing material to reflect the partnership that had been established with the Ohio State University Extension Service, whose colors are scarlet and grey.

New Financial Structure

A new financial structure was established. The structure called for all of the communities to contribute on a per capita basis. A fee of $.25 per resident of the city or village based on recent census data was to be charged on an annual basis to each participating community. A fee of $.50 per resident was charged to the county. Participating townships were charged a $.10 per person fee. The banks and utility companies were charged $500 a year for a seat on the board, as were companies, individuals, and organizations. Chambers of Commerce, Community Improvement Corporations, and Development Corporations were charged $100 a year. Anyone else who wanted to be affiliated with the organization could pay an annual fee of $100.00; however, they would not have a seat on the board and thus have a vote on any economic development policies or programs.

New Programming

Program activities were placed in four categories. These categories were identified as 1) Marketing, 2) Business Retention and Expansion, 3) Data Compilation , and 4) Assistance to Communities. As a result, the agent established a full-fledged economic development organization with a myriad of responsibilities and duties. This program was presented at a public meeting that was sponsored by the member financial institutions and utility companies and attended by 95 political and civic leaders from throughout Huron County. The program was very well received. As a result, the Community Economic Development Agent went to work immediately on the various projects that were identified.

New Credibility

Immediate credibility was established for the organization once the Community Economic Development Agent was introduced to the community. People throughout the community now realized that a full-time, professionally trained economic development professional would be working in the county. The affiliation with a major, world-renowned university also helped in this regard. The Ohio State University Extension Service had a reputation for providing excellent educational services to the citizens of Huron County through the years. This same type of service was expected in areas of Community and Community Economic Development.

During the first year of operation, all of the communities within Huron County, along with area Chambers of Commerce and the county commissioners, agreed to contribute. Some of the communities were rather reluctant, but a "try and see" approach was taken. Eventually all of the utility companies became members, and eventually all of the financial organizations came into the fold. HCDC now has a solid membership of 50. An operating budget of $65,000 a year is used to manage the program. This budget is maintained by membership fees and by grant administration work undertaken by the agent.

Quantitative Impacts

A common way to measure success of programming activities, whether it is related to Cooperative Extension work or another type of work, is to use quantitative impacts. In the field of economic development, if jobs are not being created, if unemployment numbers are not decreasing, if businesses are not growing or locating in a community, then economic development programming efforts are not having a positive impact in the community.

In the case of the economic development programming efforts in Huron County, Ohio, other numbers were also relevant to the success or failure of the work of the Community Economic Development Agent. These numbers were related to membership of the Huron County Development Council and to funds raised by the agent to operate the economic development program. In all of the quantitative categories mentioned above, there were significant measures of improvement.

  • Since July of 1994, the Community Economic Development Agent has been able to verify a net job growth of close to 1,000 new jobs created in the county.
  • Over 30 different expansions by industries already located in the county have occurred during the 6 years that the economic development program has been in place.
  • Huron County has seen an investment of over $100 million by business and industry in new plants and equipment.
  • The unemployment figures have been reduced to the lowest rate in 19 years.

All of these items are positive quantitative measures of the improvement that has occurred in the local economy.


In addition to these quantitative measures, membership and funding for the Huron County Development Council has stabilized to the point where HCDC is known and respected as the economic development organization for the county. Now, whenever a business, industry, or organization needs economic development assistance they know they can contact the Community Economic Development Agent in Huron County to get the help they need, whether it is:

  • Educating members of the Huron County Development Council on economic development programs,
  • Conducting a business retention and expansion survey throughout the county to assist a company on its expansion plans,
  • Providing marketing data to prospective industries, or
  • Facilitating an incentive program for a local company to allow it to expand.

The mission of the Huron County Development Council is to work on improving the Huron County economy. The Community Economic Development Agent in Huron County and the Ohio State University Extension Service have had a significant impact on this mission.


Severs, F., Graham, D., Gamon, J., & Conklin, N. (1997). Education through Cooperative Extension. New York: Delmar Publishers.

Ohio Bureau of Employment Services. (Oct. 1998). Ohio labor market information: Labor force estimates.

Ohio Department of Development. (1995). Ohio county profiles.

The Ohio State University Extension Service. Community development: Professional training programs for state, businesses, educators and community organizations.

The Ohio State University Extension Service. Community Development. (Nov. 1994). A strategic plan for involvement 1995-2000.