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Minding our neighbor’s business

With new retail developments springing up daily, it can seem that the business is always greener on the other side of the river. But what can Lawrence County learn from its neighbors' growth spurts? And how can the county get one of its own?

Ashland, Ky.

Across the river, Ashland is experiencing an economic upswing thanks to two multi-million dollar complexes that are just across the road from each other.

The anchor of the $35 million Melody Mountain

is a 203,000-square foot Wal-Mart SuperCenter that is scheduled to open Aug. 24.

Melody Mountain visitors will also be able to fill their bellies at the four restaurants slated to open there: Fire Mountain, Outback Steakhouse, O'Charley's Restaurant and

Chik-Fil-A.

The other major store, Home Depot, won't open this year, but that doesn't seem to bother Ashland mayor Steve Gilmore.

"Obviously, in small town America, this is major," Gilmore said. "These things just don't come cities' ways very often."

Just across U.S. 23 from Melody Mountain will be Providence Hill, a $40 million development for retail and residences.

Providence Hill will feature 216 upscale apartments, an eight-story high-rise condominium complex with about 50 condos. The development will feature a lake, fitness area and other conveniences.

Gilmore said that he believes that Providence Hill would not be in town were it not for Melody Mountain.

A huge achievement for a town of Ashland's size, Gilmore said there was no magic bullet to getting the complex, except for determination: Russell, Ky. was originally to be the site for the Melody Mountain development until Gilmore pleaded they reconsider.

"It's kind of one of those intangibles," Gilmore said. "Sometimes you don't realize being business friendly, being an inviting place to come helps you get these businesses in."

Besides being friendly to business, Gilmore said that one of the keys to obtaining the Wal-Mart, besides the store desiring to sell carry-out, was to make his city a place that businesses want to be a part of.

"They wouldn't sign the contract unless we annexed the property in the city, now I'm sure they wanted to sell carry-out, but they also mentioned police and fire protection," Gilmore said.

"They looked through our community and they saw how we took care of the streets and wanted to be in our downtown, and that was a major compliment to us."

Bo Gunlock, vice president of development for RG Properties, said that one of the main reasons they decided to put more restaurants in Ashland is … that Ashland has a lot of restaurants.

"Ashland draws very well from outlying areas, there are more people working in Ashland than live there," Gunlock said. "People get in their car and head towards Ashland, and on the way they decide which restaurant they want to eat at, but it's going to be in Ashland."

Just west of Ashland is the Kyova Mall (formerly the Cedar Knoll Galleria.) Mall officials announced in May that they would be constructing a 10-screen movie theatre on the back of the complex that they hope to have it open by the Christmas season.

Huntington, W.Va.

Perhaps the most noticeable development recently has been Huntington's riverfront retail complex, Pullman Square.

Currently, the development on Huntington's riverfront houses the 16-screen Marquee Cinemas, a Starbucks Coffee, videogame store Electronics Boutique, Empire Books and News, the Funny Bone Comedy Club, Merle Norman Cosmetic Studio and Digital Communications, a local electronics retailer.

Still on the way is a Cold Stone Creamery ice cream parlor (which should open by early August), Pizzeria Uno and possibly a Panera Bread.

More than bringing business into the square, Mayor David Felinton said that the development is bringing life back to the Huntington downtown area.

"It's something that's bringing people back to downtown, it's a lot of fun," Felinton said. "It's been really exciting to go by on a Thursday night and there will be live music on Pullman Square, and it's packed with people of all ages having a great time."

When Kelly Fryer of South Point isn't headed to Huntington's revitalized downtown, she'll sometimes go the extra few miles to dine at the Huntington Mall in Barboursville.

"Sometimes we go to Huntington, if we go out there, we'll usually go to (Mexican restaurant) Rio Grande or something like that or the Olive Garden in Barboursville," Fryer said.

She's not crazy about the drive, but doesn't feel like she has much choice when she wants to eat out.

"There's just nothing down here," Fryer said.

At least not yet.

Lawrence County

Business and government leaders have heard the pleas of people like Fryer, and many are working to do something about it.

The most talked about development in the county's future is RiverWalk, located in Proctorville along the Ohio River, just west of the 29th Street Bridge.

As it stands, the development will include a marina, medical offices, residential, retail and professional facilities.

If the project were to be completed, it could rope in an estimated 3,500 construction and new business jobs, making $87.4 million in labor income. The community could generate around $8.4 million in taxes.

The price tag for the development has ballooned to $131 million due to growing regulatory costs.

Developers are currently planning to apply for two state grants of around $1.3 million that would help provide seed money for the project.

Also still in the planning stages is a proposed hotel, an 80 to 100-room Hampton Inn to be specific, a four-story facility that could create 200 jobs. The project has been delayed, but organizers still hope to begin construction this year.

The plan also calls for adjoining shops and restaurants that would create 150 to 200 jobs.

That would be good news for Patty Bowen, an Irontonian who said that, although she'll occasionally visit Ashland's Texas Roadhouse, she prefers to keep her money in the city.

"I do try my best to buy everything in town," Bowen said. "We usually eat at home, but when we do eat out, we usually do it here."

If local business and government leaders have their way, Bowen may soon find it a bit easier to keep her dollars local.

Story by

Justin McElroy

Photos by Jessica St. James