Niswonger Center

The Niswonger Center in Van Wert is used by local groups and schools, but also hosts national acts.

On a typical day it’s a half-hour drive between New Haven and Van Wert, Ohio, or vice versa. The flat, straight, dual-lane U.S. 30 makes the commute a breeze.

So it’s not uncommon for people to live in one town and commute to their workplace in the other town.

Mark Verville should know; he’s done it both ways. He grew up in Fort Wayne and was working for Bobick’s Golf when he learned of a job opportunity in a golf business in Van Wert. He spent a few years commuting from his home between Fort Wayne and New Haven to Van Wert.

Then he changed direction — literally — and lived in Van Wert while he commuted to a job in the banking industry in Fort Wayne.

Eventually he settled in Van Wert, where his wife is from, and where he’s lived for the past 25 years. For the last 10 years he worked in the Van Wert area, and for the past three years he has been the president and CEO of the Van Wert Area Chamber of Commerce, which encompasses all of Van Wert County.

The coronavirus hasn’t been especially hard on Van Wert County, except for some of the smaller businesses. Restaurants survived with online ordering and safe food-delivery methods. He didn’t see many businesses drop their membership with the chamber.

Van Wert County’s most recent unemployment figure is 4.6%.

Verville’s been hearing from other chamber members that they’re having a hard time finding the right talent — a familiar refrain in Northeast Indiana counties as well.

Verville said many employers aren’t looking for particular skills. They’re just seeking “someone who wants to work.”

Van Wert County does a good job of promoting its businesses, Verville said. And that includes businesses in little villages out in the middle of nowhere.

He was recently in Wren, Ohio, population 188, to promote a new Airbnb. They, in turn, promoted a local bar/restaurant that has “amazing food.”

Van Wert is a good place to live for those who crave a small-town feel. They even have a Peony Festival with a parade, pageant and all the other accouterments of a small-town fair.

And for those who crave something a little more exciting, Verville noted Van Wert is in close proximity to Fort Wayne (34 miles) and Toledo (90 miles).

When he mentions Fort Wayne, Verville can’t say enough about the downtown development and the $286 million Electric Works redevelopment project to turn part of the former General Electric property on Broadway into offices, restaurants, shops, schools and more. He’s impressed by the number of new and interesting restaurants downtown.

He says Van Wert needs a flagship restaurant in its downtown. Nothing against the downtown restaurants already in Van Wert, but “we need more,” he said.

When he sees what downtown Fort Wayne has to offer, he says there’s “no reason that can’t happen here.”

He believes people want to live downtown and would, but the apartment stock just is not available. He envisions fixing up downtown buildings so second stories could be turned into apartments. And he admits some of the buildings need fixes to the ground floor, as well.

And that’s where Van Wert Forward comes in. An initiative of the Van Wert County Foundation, the organization owns about 40 properties in downtown Van Wert.

The goal is to restore and re-imagine these buildings as mixed-use properties, with potential uses including retail, residential, and dining.

The planning process involves engaging as many community members as possible. Once a plan is established, it will be executed in phases. To learn more, go to www.vanwertforward.org.

Not all the attention has been focused on downtown. Located on the southwest side of Van Wert, the Niswonger Performing Arts Center of Northwest Ohio opened in 2007. It has 1,200 seats and attracts national acts (pre-pandemic) that draw people into Van Wert for a show or concert. It’s also used for school performances, high school musicals, rentals, dance competitions and more.

The idea of providing an enhanced auditorium for the school and community began in 2001 when the Van Wert City School District was awarded matching funds from the Ohio Schools Facility Commission to build an educational facility after taxpayers passed a levy to support the new building.

Momentum grew after Van Wert alumnus Scott Niswonger committed an initial $2 million to the project. Six years and $9.8 million later the building was completed and paid for entirely with private donations. It was given back to the school, and both the Van Wert City Schools and Van Wert County Foundation formed a separate foundation called the Van Wert Area Performing Arts Foundation. This foundation leases and helps pay for the operation of the center and coordinates the scheduling and day-to-day operation of the facility.

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