Ironton showing signs of rebirth

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 13, 2001

The Associated Press

IRONTON – Hemmed in between the Ohio River and an Appalachian ridge, this old iron city ties its fortunes to a stretch of industrial land that’s seen better days.

Saturday, January 13, 2001

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IRONTON – Hemmed in between the Ohio River and an Appalachian ridge, this old iron city ties its fortunes to a stretch of industrial land that’s seen better days.

A roofing materials plant closed in November and awaits demolition. An iron foundry that shut down more than a year ago, wiping out 620 hourly jobs, is to be dismantled. The sign on the whitewashed fence of the Ironton Coal Co. says ”House coal for sale,” but the former terminal for loading coal barges sits idle.

While rust is beginning to eat at the hulking sheet metal buildings, officials envision the land where those plants are nestled as a key to a comeback.

After two years of plant closings and the loss of 1,000 jobs, there are signs of rebirth in this city of 13,000 people.

”We’ve kind of hit what we hope is the low point right now,” Mayor Bob Cleary said. ”But it’s going to take a while to make a recovery on it.”

Those who gather at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8850, a squat building with its back up against the industrial zone, have seen Ironton’s mood turn grim.

”Now, it seems like it’s looking up,” said John Linn, 53, a lifelong resident and a retired federal Bureau of Prisons worker. ”There’s a good work force here.”

Officials used that argument a year ago to attract Liebert Corp., a division of St. Louis-based Emerson Electric Co. that makes power and air conditioning systems for computers. The state provided nearly $1 million in tax credits and $3.6 million in loans and grants to persuade Liebert to take over a building that Cabletron Systems vacated in 1999, wiping out 300 jobs.

Liebert employs 400 people and plans an expansion that could create 200 jobs, Cleary said.

Being part of an economic development zone that includes Huntington, W.Va., has helped Ironton obtain matching state and federal funds for street improvements, Cleary said.

A 79-year-old bridge connects Ironton to neighboring Russell, Ky., and West Virginia.

In December, Gov. Bob Taft’s administration announced the state would help Ironton buy an abandoned, 40-acre industrial site in hopes of attracting new employers. The state is providing $225,000 and Ironton the remaining $151,000 to buy the site from Honeywell, formerly Allied Chemical.

The land, three blocks from the Liebert building, has undergone 10 years of federally supervised cleanup from decades of industrial contamination.

The arrival of new tenants can’t come too soon for Ironton. The city expects it income tax revenues this year to be down $400,000 or more than 10 percent from two years ago.

The city laid off three police officers a year ago. This year’s budget envisions layoffs of two part-time employees, two firefighters, a police officer and an engineering draftsman from a work force of 140 people, the mayor said.

Lawrence County, which includes Ironton, had an unemployment rate in November of 5.5 percent, compared with the nation’s 3.8 percent and Ohio’s 3.7 percent. Other parts of southern Ohio fared worse, such as Vinton County at 11.5 percent.

Lagging numbers of college graduates are part of the problem.

Leaders in Ironton and other Appalachian communities need to promote education in the long run while they search for service industries in the short term, Ohio University economist Richard Vedder said. Otherwise, they won’t be poised to attract high-paying, high-tech jobs anytime soon, he said.

”The labor force is relatively less skilled than the national average at a time when most of the new jobs being created are at skill levels that are relatively high,” Vedder said. ”Communities that look to manufacturing as their salvation are not likely to find success.”

The hills on Ironton’s northern edge were once home to iron ore operations that supported the production of Civil War cannons and ships and helped get Ohio started as a major industrial state.

Now, as in much of Appalachia, the hills make highway building a challenge and interfere with the signals of cell phones.