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City council creates port authority

The Ironton City Council unanimously approved the creation of a port authority board that will work with city officials to focus on economic development.

Council approved with a 7-0 vote the creation of the port authority in a 10 p.m. special meeting Wednesday. The late-night meeting was called so the city could create a port authority to focus solely on Ironton and will not be affected by the county's potential plans to create one, Mayor Bob Cleary said.

The city's port authority will be an independent entity composed of a five-member board of directors appointed by the mayor and approved by council. Members will serve four-year terms and cannot receive any salary.

Port authorities can conduct commercial, industrial, residential and recreational development projects including property development, housing opportunities, marinas, railroad access, trucking terminals, warehouses, industrial buildings, piers and more.

"I think this is a real positive first step in helping our economic development department continue its goal of promoting the city and creating new jobs," Cleary said.

The whole goal is to allow the city to have more flexibility and tools available when discussing projects with prospective tenants, Cleary said. The primary purpose would be to negotiate the development of property that the city owns and create jobs.

A port authority has more flexibility than a city government. If the city tries to lease city-owned property to a tenant, it must put the property out to public bid and cannot negotiate a contract without going through an entity such as the Lawrence Economic Development Corporation or the CAO, Cleary said.

With the creation of the port authority, it would be in charge of the leasing of the city's property and could negotiate prices, he said.

"When people want to go into business, they do not want to put the work in and go through a long bidding process and have it taken out from under them," Cleary said. "In today's economy, that amount of time is not possible."

Even though this port authority will initially focus on the city, Cleary said other villages or townships could join.

The Lawrence Economic Development Corporation has been working with the Lawrence County Commission to develop a port authority for the entire county.

The topic was on the agenda at Tuesday's commission meeting but was postponed because Nate Green of the Ohio Department of Development was unable to attend.

Pat Clonch, executive director of the Greater Lawrence County Area Chamber of Commerce, said she is unsure when the issue will be discussed again.

Regardless of what the city does, the county will move ahead with its plans that they have worked on for more than three years, she said.

"It really would not matter if the city creates a port authority," she said. "The best thing would be to have one large port authority and make it that much stronger."

Either way, adding one or two port authorities within Lawrence County will help the area grow, she said.

"Any time we can improve and enhance our transportation system, we have a much better recruitment tool," she said. "This will certainly do that."

County Commissioner Jason Stephens said the issue is not on today's agenda and that the county is really just in the discussion stages with a lot of questions that still need answered.

"Obviously, if this is something that can really benefit the county, I would like to pursue it," he said, although he said Ironton is welcome to move forward with their plans. "As far as I am concerned, if Ironton is successful, the county is successful. I believe the city and the county can work together to improve the economy."

Now that the city has created its own, the county can still move forward but Ironton will be excluded, Cleary said.

The mayor said city officials had no input into the county's plans and really needed its own because it has an independent economic development director that needs to have the power to negotiate without going through the extra steps.

If the county had created a port authority first, the city would have been included in it and it may have taken six months to a year to be removed from it, he said.

Economic Development Director Matt Ward continues discussion with several prospective tenants and having a port authority already approved may make the property more attractive, Cleary said.

Because the meeting was conducted so late, the audience was sparse. The Ridgeways of Ironton attended but were disappointed because they did not get a chance to speak because a motion by Councilman John Elam to open it to the floor came after the ordinance had already had its first reading.

Their biggest concern was that the five members of the board would have too much power and could impose taxes, Willis Ridgeway said after the meeting.

Council Chairman Jesse Roberts said during the meeting that the port authority cannot impose taxes but can place a levy on the ballot that would allow for a percentage of the property taxes to be used by the entity only if the voters approved it.

The port authority can be undone just as easily as it was created, Cleary said.

"City council can pass an ordinance to dissolve the port authority if they feel like it is not doing what it was intended to do or if there is an opportunity to go in another direction," he said.