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Selling the city: Ward busy after 3 months

Much like a good detective, Economic Development Director Matt Ward has been checking every lead and leaving no stone unturned in his first three months marketing the city.

Since he was hired in late April, Ward has talked with more than 100 industrial and 50 commercial businesses as well as working on the deal with Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital, creating an inventory of available properties and developing the port authority.

Ward, 24, graduated from Fairland High School in 1996 and received a bachelor's degree from Ohio University in 2000. He worked in the House of Representatives with John Carey and Clyde Evans, making contacts that he says are very useful to his job with the city.

In the works

Never a slow moment, Ward said he gets about three leads a day from the Ohio Department of Development and other sources.

He has plenty to market. At least 50 buildings across the city sit vacant waiting for a tenant, with even more if you count the empty lots.

The Proctorville native said he is in advanced discussions with at least four potential Ironton tenants right now -- two industrial, one commercial and another that would require a new building.

Even though the seeds were planted before he was hired, Ward continues to iron out the details with Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital to bring 50 jobs to the Ironton City Center.

"We feel it is extremely important to bring business to downtown Ironton," Ward said. "Spin off economy has effects on all the businesses. We want to have the traffic generators in downtown."

A small part of what he has been working on is compiling all the information he needs so he can quickly answer any questions potential clients would have.

He has compiled a map and list of 21 buildings across the city that could be used for industrial business or larger commercial ones. He has gathered all the necessary information for each site including acreage, square footage, design specifics such as floors, ceilings, stories and docks, access to road, rail and airport transportation, utilities, ownership and price.

Ward does not rank the buildings and only bases his strategy on what potential clients need. Several buildings are ones the community are familiar with, including the Ohio Department of Transportation's District 9 garage on Sixth Street, the Wolohan building, the Ironton Iron Inc. building (Intermet) and the former Ironton Steel building.

"Having all the information available, if not the most important thing, is at the least extremely important," he said. "Clients want the information, and they want it now. If you cannot get it to them, they move on to the next person who can."

He has also been working with the Lawrence Economic Development Corporation and Ohio University Southern's Center for Development to create a detailed map of downtown Ironton that shows exactly what is occupied and what is available.

"I have been working with several local property owners to help them market their properties. It is the citizens of Ironton that have been the most helpful," he said. "A lot of them know what is available."

One stumbling block, especially, in the downtown area is absentee ownership. Getting in touch with some of these individuals can be challenging, but is still important because a client may be interested in a building owned by someone who no longer lives in the city, he said.

Ward said he will continue to try to attract companies that employee 20 to 50 people.

"I will do everything possible to bring in the big fish but that is not the only aspect of the economy," he said. "We have a lot of empty building s in downtown that need to be filled."

Although he is pleased with the progress, he knows he has his work cut out for him.

"We definitely have a lot of work to be done," he said. "It is going to be hard to attract the large businesses like the Lieberts in this tough economy, but that does not mean we will not work just as hard."

Glowing endorsements

Huntington, W.Va., resident Jeff Hood of Hood Realty Co. has been trying to market the former Ironton Steel building, a business that was once ran by his family, for about two years with little success.

Although he has no ties with Ward and has only talked with him briefly on two occasions, Hood had nothing but good things to say because he recently got a call from a potential client who was referred by Ward.

"I have no idea if anything will come of it, but there is a chance," he said. "As a matter of fact, I met with them there yesterday."

Hood said economic development is absolutely critical to Ironton's development and is something the city needs to keep it on a level playing field with every other market across the state.

"Matt Ward has my full endorsement," Hood said. "I think all the naysayers need to give him a chance and stop throwing stones at him."

Mayor Cleary, Ward's boss, said he has been extremely impressed with Ward's progress, especially considering the first year was expected to be primarily laying the groundwork for the future.

Overall, Ward is probably about three months ahead of schedule, he said.

"I think (Ward) is doing an excellent job for the city. He has more than fulfilled his initial job duties," Cleary said.

"Because he has been working on this full-time, he has probably made more contacts in the last three months than we have seen in years. His position will make a significant difference in new job creation within the next few months."

Although some skeptics have questioned Ward's age and his objectives, the economic development director said that only provides him with motivation to prove his critics wrong.

Down the road

Looking ahead, Ward said he has some long-term plans including marketing the riverfront, historic tours and adding large commercial attractions such as hotels and restaurants. Developing and marketing the Ohio River waterfront needs to be a focus, he said.

"We have an attraction that other river cities market and develop," he said. "We are really missing out on an opportunity."

Another idea that could help generate traffic in the city is establishing historic tours that showcase the city, he said

"We need to capitalize on the rich heritage of Ironton," he said. "I have been throughout the state and Ironton has some of the most beautiful churches and homes I have seen."