Blue ribbon dreams fade to black

Published 12:00 am Sunday, August 29, 2004

An electricity and excitement filled the Ironton City Center on that June morning last year. Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital and the city of Ironton were hosting a press conference to make several highly-anticipated announcements that many hoped would spark a renaissance of sorts for the city.

OLBH officials outlined details for a new urgent care center, its plans to move 50 administrative positions to Ironton and the creation of a community panel to study the best way to utilize the former River Valley Hospital building Bellefonte had purchased the prior year.

It was the Blue Ribbon Panel that caused many in attendance to dream, to leave that room with a sense of optimism and faith that it was the start of many positive things within Ironton and of a valuable relationship with Our Lady of Bellefonte.

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"At the time, I remember there being a lot of hope that something positive would come out of the hospital and those meetings," County Commissioner Jason Stephens said. "We haven't seen anything yet and that is really disappointing. We haven't seen any real progress."

In the year since, those positive emotions have gradually shifted. At first it was slow, with just a remark here or there. Then the negative perceptions gained momentum like a boulder rolling down a snow-covered mountainside.

Now, for many, that optimism, hope and faith has been replaced with disappointment, confusion and anger.

Where did something so positive go wrong? What has actually been done?

OLBH's urgent care opened. Though it did some reshuffling of services, it is still considered a success today. The deal to bring the 50 jobs was slow to materialize. One delay after another was reported. In the end, the deal fell through completely. New leadership at the hospital questioned how close to being a sure thing it ever was.

But the shining light that many people so looked forward to, the committee, is the one thing that many consider the worst affront. The panel of elected officials, business leaders and community members designed to provide community input on how the building could best be utilized began to meet behind closed doors and with limited media access.

Though cautioned not to make their feelings known publicly, several committee members said at the time that they felt guided, pushed, even coerced into a few general uses.

The Blue Ribbon Panel met for the final time in March, making five recommendations for ways to best utilize the River Valley Health System property: a medical plaza/medical mall, a veteran's long-term care and/or assisted living home, a business center, a specialized laboratory service or an allied health and medical training facility.

At that time, CEO Mark Gordon announced that Ironton Mayor John Elam, Dr. Bill Dingus, executive director of the Lawrence Economic Development Corporation and the Greater Lawrence County Area Chamber of Commerce and Pacifico Dorado, M.D., a former member of the RVHS staff and current member of the OLBH staff, would continue to serve as advisors to the hospital on the final decision.

It has been five months since. The group has met once, leaving two of the three members wondering what happens now.

"I am enthusiastic and ready to go. The slow progress has been disheartening," Mayor John Elam said. "Not only the Blue Ribbon panel, but the summary panel, we all believed we would have a role in determining the future of the River Valley hospital building. To date, that has not happened."

Dingus expressed similar thoughts.

"We have met one time and there have been no meetings since that initial meeting," he said. "I would assume it is a defunct committee."

Elam said he is anxiously awaiting any future discussions that could turn the situation into a positive. Dingus applauded the efforts of the initial committee and said he also remains hopeful that something positive will come from it.

"All three of us named to the committee, I believe would be willing to assist in any way we can," he said. "We don't own the building so it is in the hands of the leadership of Bellefonte if they need any assistance."

For Dr. Dorado there was not much to say, though he also remains optimistic.

"I think there might be something cooking but I don't know," Dorado said. "We are waiting on Mr. Gordon to make an announcement."

OLBH CEO Gordon declined to comment for this article. Kevin Compton, spokesperson for OLBH, said that Gordon is interested in speaking at the right time when there is new information to share.

Time will tell if the Blue Ribbon Panel was successful or if it was just a case of the community grasping at dreams.