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Could key to our future be right under our noses?

How about a riddle this morning?

What is 725 feet tall, and 2,814 feet long, weighs almost 15,000 tons and could be the key to downtown Ironton’s economic future?

Give up?

Here’s another hint. It just turned 83 years old.

Still no clue?

I’m referring of course about the soon-to-be abandoned Ironton-Russell bridge.

OK, so you can believe its center span rises 725 feet into the sky and you can believe it is more than 2,800 feet long. And, sure, you can believe that the massive thing weighs more than 15,000 tons.

But how could the aging hulk become an economic boon for downtown?

Well, imagine if the bridge was saved, not for cars, the new bridge will do that nicely, but if we kept the bridge erect for more two-legged transportation.

It may sound crazy, but let’s consider it a minute.

Former banker and local history guru Don Edwards and I began talking recently after we published a photo featuring the bridge during a lightning storm. In the conversation we starting discussing how we both hated to see the bridge destroyed.

A short time later, Don sent me an article from Southern Living magazine that featured the "Purple People Bridge" down the river in Cincinnati. The bridge connects Cincy to Newport, Ky., and was transformed for pedestrian use in 2003. The similarities are striking between the "Purple People Bridge" and the Ironton-Russell Bridge.

Considering that both the Ironton and Russell, Ky., downtowns could use some extra business, the bridge might just be the key.

If the communities worked together, could transforming the existing bridge into a "people" bridge help spark the economies?

The river is an untapped tourism draw for people. Ironton’s riverfront could be opened up and further developed as the people bridge.

With as many people as I’ve seen lining the parking lots at any number of Ashland, Ky., eating establishments, I can’t help but believe a few more could fit in without crowding the market.

Imagine if a couple could park in Ironton, have dinner at a downtown restaurant, do a little shopping at the renovated Ironton Depot Marketplace, then walk across the bridge soaking in one of the gorgeous sunsets over the Ohio River.

Or our imaginary couple could walk across to Russell do a little antiques shopping, walk across the Ohio River and enjoy a concert at a yet-to-be developed riverfront amphitheater in Ironton.

It may seem like the stuff of dreams, but some dreams can come true, especially if enough people get behind the idea and support it.

Now for the logistics.

The Ohio Department of Transportation is planning on demolishing the bridge when the new bridge is completed.

Could Ironton and Russell leaders convince ODOT to donate the money it earmarked for the demolition into a bridge foundation fund?

If that were done, ODOT could wash its hands of it and ownership of the bridge could be given to the newly created foundation.

The funds could then be used to help make the bridge more people-friendly, add signage and a light resurfacing, perhaps. I can see the bridge lined with benches and planters and perhaps several historical markers detailing the history of the Ironton-Russell communities – from the railroads to the iron industry to the Underground Railroad connections.

In 1921, when construction of the bridge began, it started at the grassroots level with a civic campaign, no bonds or debts of any kind, just the people of the community stepping up to make a difference for the future.

We need that same combination of guts and vision today. A small brochure created in April 1922 to commemorate the opening of the bridge tells it better than I can.

"A story of the accomplishment of a people who awoke to the fact that co-operation is the royal road to success."

Kevin Cooper is publisher of The Tribune. He can be reached at (740) 532-1445, ext. 12 or by e-mail to kevin.cooper@irontontribune.com.