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Study: Ironton business rate climate as ‘poor’

"What business, corporation, agency or industry can grow without a plan? The city needs a strategy. Ironton needs a plan."

That's the perception of Ironton business owners according to a study released this week by Dr. David Lucas and the International Institute of Folknography at Ohio University Southern. The study was commissioned by the Ironton Port Authority.

The 25-page report, titled "The Business Climate of Ironton, Ohio," reveals not only a plea for help from city business owners and a startling condemnation of city government, it also stands as a testament to the loyalty of city residents.

The problem

The most telling statistics are probably the first few in the study, which has only a three percent margin of error.

To the question, "Do you plan to expand your business in the next 12 months," 87 percent of the 193 respondents said, "no." Seventy-nine percent say they won't hire any additional employees either in the next year.

But when business owners were asked if they plan to relocate, 95 percent say they haven't even considered it.

"These people are very loyal," Lucas told the port authority when he presented the results. "Very loyal to Ironton, to the citizenry, to their customers and to this region, and yet they feel like we're at a standstill, and that the city is in demise, and that nobody can get past all of it."

No matter where their loyalties lie, 68 percent of business owners surveyed rated the business climate in Ironton as, "poor." A quarter said it was, "fair," six percent said, "good," and one percent of those surveyed said, "excellent."

They were only slightly more complimentary for the climate for new businesses locating in Ironton, with 61 percent checking "poor" and 31 percent rating it, "fair."

The blame

Residents were also asked what factors hurt their business in Ironton. Fifty-five respondents said that the Ironton City Council stands as the major obstacle for growth in the community.

Forty-seven said that one of the first steps to improving Ironton would be to elect an entirely new city council.

Two of the most common accusations were that the council didn't have a coherent strategy to help the city, and that they were slowed by personal squabbles.

"They were none too kind to the city council," Lucas said. "The merchants see the city council as virtual dinosaurs, that they won't do anything. It's really a tragedy to read that kind of material.

"If I were on city council, I'd be raising a lot of campaign funds, I'd be getting my war chest ready cause it's going to be a battle, I think."

Council chairman Jim Tordiff said he believed some of that sentiment may be an issue of timing.

The issue of the budget, specifically whether or not the city would pass a municipal fee, was hotly contested in the summer, making it the last thing that many residents saw televised before Ohio University Southern stopped covering the meetings during the summer months.

"Other than that issue, I think that most of the minutes will show that council has pretty much been in unison on other issues," Tordiff said.

Councilman Jesse Roberts said the government was set up to allow disagreements, a perfectly healthy part of any government body.

"I think that's the way it's supposed to work. It's like the congress and the president," Roberts said. "They don't always agree on things, the president has the right to veto. It's just a much smaller scale.

"Seven people should never get along and agree with everything the mayor says," Roberts said. "But then those seven people shouldn't agree on everything either."

Jim Hacker, owner of the Iron City Hardware Co., seems to agree, laying more blame for the city's problems on necessary evils such as the stormwater utility fee.

"I think it's a little drastic replacing everybody, I wouldn't do that," Hacker said. "I think everybody's trying to do the right thing. Seems like there's different agendas, different philosophies, that doesn't make them wrong or right."

Mayor John Elam was largely spared similar criticism, with only one respondent suggesting that he be replaced.

The solution

Despite some of the negativity, there is hope for Ironton, in the eyes of some business owners.

Most like the small town feel of Ironton and enjoy feeling that they are part of a family. Besides their concerns with the city government, business owners feel that if downtown was spruced up, and if new businesses were drawn to town, then Ironton might have a real shot.

Many were complimentary of the work the Ironton Port Authority and similar groups are doing, and are looking for others to rise to a similar challenge. In a way, Lucas said, they're looking for a single person, a group, maybe just an idea that will save their city.

"They are very discouraged, they are very dismayed," Lucas said. "They're not very hopeful, they don't see any bright future for Ironton. There's another side to the coin to that though Š they have this hopeful anticipation that somebody will do something to change the way things are going to go."

The study closed with a Biblical quote the authors thought is the best message for Ironton, one that echoes the business owners' plea for a strong leader:

"Without vision, the people perish."