A local agency that provides resources for families, farmers and youth has come a long way in the past two years.

As the crow flies, the new Purdue Cooperative Extension office is just 1.1 miles southeast of its former haunts in the Bartholomew County Annex. But in terms of amenities, the facilities are worlds apart.

Purdue Extension was one of several county agencies to be housed in the 87-year-old Bartholomew County Annex at 1971 State St.

Before the annex was razed two years ago this month, the county offices based there worked in conditions that included multiple roof leaks, water penetrating through walls and collapsed sewage and plumbing.

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After nearly two years in a temporary office on Repp Drive, the former Starks Mechanical Building on Repp Drive, the six Columbus-based Extension employees find themselves in an attractive, functional, spacious and professional setting.

It’s almost as if they had clicked their ruby slippers and realized: “We’re not in Kansas anymore.”

The past two months, the Purdue Extension has been settling into its permanent home at 785 S. Marr Road, a two-building site that the Bartholomew County commissioners purchased from Premier Ag Co-Op Inc., which is in the process of moving its base of operations to Seymour.

That came after a financial decision by county commissioners to drop the idea of building a $3.25 million county annex building for the Extension and other county offices.

Plans for a new annex had included such amenities as a full-sized demonstration kitchen, as well as a teaching orchard and garden, Extension director Elisabeth Smith said.

“There was a lot of work put into a really big dream that would have been ideal,” said Julie Aton, retiring president of the Extension board of directors.

While Premier Ag’s 8,000 square feet of facilities on 1.72 acres was met with enthusiastic staff approval, the commissioners gave the company a year to vacate the premises, which meant the Extension office had to continue operating at its temporary office in relative obscurity for another year.

Since the Repp Drive location was always meant to be temporary, little investment was put into signage for public visibility. To further confuse local residents, signage from the former tenant was not removed from the leased building.

“Even after two years (on Repp Drive), people were still calling the last week we were there, telling us they had no idea where we were located,” Smith said.

It has been a roller-coaster, two-year period, Aton said, but the transition is now nearly complete.

Premier Ag was supposed to have completely moved out by July of this year. But due to construction delays, its new building in Seymour wasn’t finished by their scheduled move date, Smith said.

Anticipating that a second county agency would eventually move in with the Extension office, the county constructed a wall to create two office spaces and agreed to rent the southern half to Premier Ag for the remainder of this year, Smith said.

Permanent home

As the Extension office prepared to move into the northern half of the building in October, Smith asked that the handicap-accessible building with high public visibility be properly marked with signage — and county officials complied.

Most work associated with the move was admirably handled by county maintenance and information technology staff, Smith said.

Premier Ag, which merged with Jackson-Jennings Co-op, had originally expected to take its furnishings to the Seymour location. But when the co-op changed its mind, it sold the upscale furnishings to the county at a substantially discounted price, Smith said.

“It was an incredible bargain,” Aton said. “Until now, the office was always an accumulation of ‘this’ desk or ‘that’ chair that someone didn’t want anymore.”

The amenities acquired from Premier Ag include:

Modern, comfortable furniture in roomy, well-lit offices that each provides windows.

A glass-enclosed waiting room just inside the main entrance for small private conferences.

A full kitchen that includes a restaurant-style dining booth.

Meeting spaces that include a former board room for about groups of up to 15 people and a second larger meeting room capable of holding about 50 people.

“This is the county’s facility, not ours,” Extension educator Harriett Armstrong. “I think the entire community will be well served by it.”

When Premier Ag fully vacates at the end of this year, the 8,000-square-foot second building will be converted into a third meeting area that can comfortably handle at least 75 people, Smith said.

Although the county commissioners have discussed moving the Bartholomew County Soil and Water Conservation offices into the building, a final decision has not yet been made, Smith said.

Evolution

Now that the extension office has what it needs to accommodate programs with a nicer and more visible location, the educators are now reaching out to let the community know how they have evolved to serve their communities.

Gone are the days when the extension office primarily served rural farm families, Smith said.

“We are everywhere, and for everybody,” Smith said.

For example, the office hosted its Extension Showcase at the 4-H Community Building at the Bartholomew County 4-H Fairgrounds on Nov. 30 to show how it has become one of the nation’s largest providers of scientific research-based information and education.

Its four program areas consist of:

  • Agriculture and Natural Resources
  • Health and Human Sciences
  • Economic and Community Development
  • Youth Development

These four areas extend into a plethora of areas that go far beyond agriculture and 4-H. Youth development programs led by Smith include computers, robotics, biotechnology and the development of academic and social skills.

Aside from providing agricultural and natural resources information, Extension educator Kris Medic has been involved in community development. For example, she led an extension-backed program that last week presented proposals for the development of Anderson Falls County Park.

Besides conventional homemaking programs, Armstrong also leads classes to maintain cardiovascular health and cope with diabetes.

Although the expansion of services began decades ago, both Medic and Smith credit Jason Henderson, the statewide director of all Purdue Extension programs, for broadening offerings over the past five years.

While Smith, Medic and Armstrong — who each hold master’s degrees — are professional educators employed by Purdue University, all other staff members are Bartholomew County employees, and the office operates as a county agency, Smith said.

Harriet Armstrong

Extension educator since: July 1, 2013.

Education: Bachelor’s and Master’s in Science degrees from Purdue University in Consumer & Family Sciences – Vocational Education

Program area: Health and Human Sciences

Family: Husband, John; daughters Anna Busenburg and Ivana Armstrong.

Kris Medic

Extension educator since: April 1, 2013

Education: Bachelor of Science degree in horticulture from Purdue University.  Master of Science degree in public horticulture from the University of Delaware.

Program areas: Agriculture & Natural Resources, and Community Development

Family: Husband, Bruce Thomason; sons, Campbell and Graham Thomason.

Elisabeth Smith

Position:

Extension educator since: Dec. 1, 2011

Education: Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education from Purdue University. Master of Arts degree in Education Policy Studies from George Washington University

Program areas: County extension director, 4-H Youth Development

Family: Parents, Charles and Lurinda Smith.

Annual meeting recap

During its Nov. 30 annual meeting, the Purdue Cooperative Extension of Bartholomew County honored two local residents with the 2017 Outstanding Service Award:

  • Teresa Covert
  • Brenda Shireman

Four new members of the organization’s board of directors were announced: Nathan Burbrink, Amparo Caudell, Mary Schwartzkopf and Dawn Wormer.

Retiring board members are Julie Aton, Tara Hagan, Andy Keffaber, Jeff King, Janice Scheidt and Stacy Stater.

Purdue Extension at a glance

The Purdue Extension office for Bartholomew County is located at 783 Marr Road, Columbus.

What it is: Purdue Extension is one of the nation’s largest providers of scientific research-based information and education. It is a network of colleges, universities and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, serving communities and counties across America.

Program areas: Agriculture and Natural Resources, Health and Human Services, Economic and Community Development, 4-H Youth Development.

Staff:

  • Elisabeth Smith, county Extension director and extension educator for 4-H Youth Development
  • Harriet Armstrong, Extension educator for Health and Human Services
  • Kris Medic, Extension educator for Agriculture and Natural Resources, as well as Community Development
  • Cherie Trimpe, program assistant
  • Brenda Shireman, office manager
  • Alisha Allen, secretary

Phone: 812-379-1665

Online: Visit extension.purdue.edu/Bartholomew

Author photo
Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.