About 150 business, political, community leaders and residents turned out last week to hear the State of Geauga talk that featured some of the county’s oldest traditions, some of its newest opportunities and what challenges it faces.

James McClintock, with Company 119 in Chardon, opened the presentation, acknowledging the notables that had been drawn to the event that was hosted by Geauga Growth Partnership, Kent State University and Leadership Geauga.

Among those in attendance were Geauga County Engineer Joseph Cattell, Geauga County Commissioner James Dvorak, state Sen. John Eklund, R-Munson, South Russell Councilman Dennis Galicki, Geauga County Sheriff Scott Hildenbrand and Chief Deputy Tom Rowan, Geauga County Probate and Juvenile Court Judge Timothy Grendell, state Rep. Diane Grendell, R-Chester, Geauga County Clerk of Courts Denise Kaminski, state Rep. John Patterson, D-Jefferson, and a representative from U.S. Rep. David Joyce’s office.

Mr. McClintock said he hoped the event would inspire people to get involved in their community.

Leading off the discussions was James Miller, who along with his wife, Linda, own the Sugar Valley Maple Farm in Middlefield Township. Mr. Miller acknowledged from the start that Geauga County is “the greatest place in Ohio to live.”

Mr. Miller noted how his passion for maple syrup started at the young age of 12 on his grandparents’ farm. At that time, he said, the family had 400 taps compared to 3,000 today. Hot rocks thrown into hollowed out logs to boil the sap is a tradition that has gone by the wayside as modern reverse osmosis processes now allow him to produce 3,000 gallons in an hour. Tubing is now used to gather the sap, rather than horses pulling sleds. Eliminating the weight of horses and sleds over the tree roots and smaller taps in the trees will allow future generations to continue the tradition of maple sugaring in Geauga, he said.

Mr. Miller said his real job is a store that furnishes all the needs for fireplaces and that he loses money on his sugar operation. There was no hiding his delight, however, as he noted a record day for sap collection during the past week. “It’s the most delicate syrup I’ve ever made,” he told the crowd.

Ann Blair, president of the fair auxiliary, spoke on another proud tradition – the Great Geauga County Fair. She is a third-generation participant in the fair that is the oldest continuous county fair in Ohio and is preparing to mark its 200th anniversary in 2022.

Mrs. Blair said the fair tradition has not lost any momentum as it builds to that 200th anniversary. Last year, a record crowd of 66,635 visitors turned out for the Saturday edition of the fair.

Keeping the tradition alive is its newest exhibitors – the kids. It is the kids, Mrs. Blair said, who are her passion. It is the younger generation that provided 700 junior fair exhibits.

She noted that the fair also provides an economic impact to the community, most notably to Burton Village, which receives about $16,000 in taxes. When the fair is not operating, she said, it still provides an opportunity for community use through baby showers, weddings, tractor pulls and antique markets.

Mrs. Blair also recalled one of the most colorful moments in fair history that occurred in 2017 in the Domestic Arts building, when a raccoon helped itself to nine of the 11 Best of Shows baked goods. Despite a wanted poster identifying the culprit, the raccoon was never apprehended, but it did make for some of the best publicity the fair ever had. She noted newspapers from New York to California and an appearance on the television show, Inside Edition, drew visitors who just wanted to see the scene of the crime. One of the entrants whose cake survived, she said, was disappointed and wondering why the raccoon ignored her entry.

Business and education

John Epprecht, vice president of Great Lakes Cheese, told of his company’s long tradition in Geauga County since its founding in 1958. The family- and employee-owned company packages cheese in Geauga County and seven other locations throughout the United States. It employs more than 3,200 persons and processed 1.6 billion pounds of cheese each year.

One of his proudest moments, Mr. Epprecht said, is when those employees ranked the company as one of the top eight places in America to work. From its humblest beginnings down at the Cleveland Food Terminal to beginning its first plant in Newbury Township in 1963, the company has continued to grow into one of the largest purchasers of cheese in the country. The company moved its operations to Troy Township in 1998.

He said Geauga County provides the perfect location to serve the northeast corridor of the United States as no other cheese packaging plant exists to the east. But location is not the only reason. Mr. Epprecht said it is the people here that make the real difference. “It’s the people – the hardworking, kind people.”

He said some of today’s employees are fourth generation workers for the company. And, the company is not resting on its laurels. It is now undertaking a 300,000-square-foot expansion that will mean another 300 new jobs for the area. The new building rising on Main Market Road (Route 422) will include a cheese tasting room, a café with an outdoor veranda, an innovation center and a full kitchen with chefs devising new recipes.

Abriella Minotti, a senior at Hershey Montesorri School in Huntsburg Township, provided the audience with an overview of the school, which operates one in Concord Township for elementary students and the upper school in Huntsburg.

She told of the unique learning experience that the school provides, teaching students collaboration with others and “out-of-the-box thinking.” Using project-based learning on a farm with its ubiquitous animals, she said, students are learning to solve real problems that can be found in current events.

The school hosts 23 boarders, Ms. Minotti said, from all over the world. Its close intimacy, she said, allows students to get to know each by name. “It’s a place I cherish and it made me a better person,” Ms. Minotti said.

Linda M. Crombie, Geauga County planning director, and Susan L. Licate teamed up to inform the crowd of the importance of participating in the 2020 Decennial Census.

Ms. Crombie said her department is working to raise awareness on the upcoming census and noted its importance for the county to receive federal funding for roads, schools, libraries, hospitals and health and social programs. Once the data from the census is released next year, it will be available online in a user-friendly format.

Ms. Licate, a resident of Lake County who grew up in Ashtabula County, said participation in the census is easy, safe, secure and important. “Census data is what drives our economic health and vitality,” she said, adding that $675 billion is up for grabs in federal funding. The nonpartisan process is simplified with only 10 questions per person and is available in 12 languages plus English. The county’s Amish population will be able to see a German-language version, she said.

In addition, she said, the information may be used to benefit grant applications for the county as well as community planning.

All information gathered, she said, remains private and confidential.

Residents can begin looking for the mailings March 12 and paper forms will be available April 1. From April to July, canvassers will make their way door-to-door in hope of getting non-respondents to participate, Ms. Licate said.

Safety in towns, schools

Chardon Police Chief Scott Niehus gave an overall view of his department’s operations in the city of approximately 5,000 residents. Residents generated 8,724 incident reports, which included 1,092 traffic stops, 282 vehicle crashes, 22 domestic violence reports, 139 thefts, two residential burglaries and eight overdoses that resulted in three deaths, Chief Niehus said.

Since the tragic day in 2012 at Chardon High School, he said, the department has provided a school resource officer that provides added security as well as an educational component to the school. “We hope to guide young folks so they stay out of the criminal justice system,” he said.

He also spoke of the steps taken to combat the rising threat of vaping with new detectors in the school to alert school officials anytime vaping occurs and where it is occurring.

He noted that the number of opiate deaths in the county dropped from the high of 26 in 2017 to 14 in 2019, but said it may be due to the use of the emergency recovery drug Narcan. He said an even greater danger is those looking to overcome their body’s resistance to drugs by adding carfentanil or fentanyl to get high. He also advised against following other states’ legalization of marijuana, saying the drug has become more potent.

The program concluded with videos of Chagrin Falls Park, which provided a contrasting picture of the affluent Geauga most come to associate with the county. It provided a picture of residents in modest homes who live just around the corner from the picture-perfect world in downtown Chagrin Falls. It provided a look at the disconnect between what people think Geauga County should look like and those in less fortunate circumstances, who “are not looking for a handout, but a chance to give” to the Geauga community.

A second video promoted Hope for Kids Geauga, which works to raise funds and awareness to improve the lives of abused, neglected and at-risk children in Geauga County. It spoke of children who have been impacted by the opiate epidemic and the organization’s work to give children a chance to live their lives like other more fortunate children by providing tutors, and activities such as horseback riding and karate. It holds the promise of bringing normalcy and hope to those children, who often must be pulled away from their home life because of addiction.

Joseph Koziol Jr. started his career in journalism in 1981. He joined the Solon Times in 1992 and covered the city of Solon for 10 years. An award winning reporter, Mr. Koziol has been covering Geauga County since 2012.

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