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Officials optimistic about future of downtown

It’s an ambitious undertaking, to revitalize a downtown that has a lot of memories for its citizens of what it used to be.

But several plans are under way in Ironton.

On Thursday, the city got a $400,000 grant that will be used to leverage other grant money, including $560,000 from the KYOVA Interstate Planning Commission. With private funds from local businesses, the city will be doing a $4.8 million upgrade to have a farmers market and stage area by the historic Depot building, work on downtown business facades and interiors.

“This is a great time to be involved in the city of Ironton,” Mayor Rich Blankenship said. “With all of us working together, we will show what we can do.”

Ralph Kline, the Ironton-Lawrence County Community Action Organization assistant executive director, said the city received full funding for the project, which is impressive because of the number of towns that applied for the highly competitive grant. Only five others got funding from the Ohio Department of Development and none of them had the local matching funds that the Ironton project will generate.

He said that for every dollar of the ODOD grant, they were able to generate 11 matching dollars.

“It was so competitive that anybody, if you had less than $4 million leveraged to this, you weren’t considered,” he said.

Ironton was also the only town south of Columbus to get the grant.

“It’s all coming together,” said Bill Dingus, the executive director of the Greater Lawrence County Area Chamber of Commerce.

Involvement

Kline said getting the grant came about because of a combination of involvement from community groups, the activities that will be held, promoting and marketing the area.

The downtown revitalization plan was developed by the Poggemeyer Design Group of Bowling Green and calls for encouraging private improvements to downtown buildings, improving signage and pedestrian comforts to make the city more attractive and convenient, incorporating a transit station in an area between Vernon and Washington streets (south of Second Street) to accommodate a bus system and improving parking adjacent to the nearby depot that is now home to Austyn’s restaurant.

“It takes a lot of people to get a project like this going,” Kline said.

Some of the groups involved in the revitalization efforts include the CAO, the Ironton Port Authority, the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce, the Friends of Ironton, the City Council, the Lawrence County Commissioners, Ironton in Bloom, the Lawrence County Economic Development Corp., and the Ironton Mayor’s Office.

County commissioners Doug Malone and Jason Stephens said the Ironton project could help the county, too.

“When a business owner looking to invest in our county comes in, it will make a major difference,” he said. “You can already see a difference when you come down Park Avenue. This will be a big step for Ironton and the county.”

Stephens said that when the city sees success, the county does too.

“As goes Ironton, so does the county,” he said. “This is another step to bigger things.”

The Depot project

The Depot project has been designed and revised a number of times since 1988.

The final version will have a stage built near the Ironton-Russell Bridge, a sheltered area that resembles a passenger area and will be used for a farmers market, the municipal parking lot will be redone and extra parking added around Bobby Bare Boulevard. It would also have bathrooms but their location is still being worked out.

The area will be used for things like the annual Gus Macker tournament, the Rally on the River and other community events. Kline said it would be much easier once the project is completed.

“It will be easier to set up and basic things like electricity and water will be available,” Kline said. “Hopefully, it will make event planning easier and attract people to the downtown Ironton.”

Dingus said it’s a partnership for the region. For example, it will be farmers coming in from the county to sell their wares at the farmers market.

“This whole Depot district is so valuable and it can become a magnet to draw people from all over the Tri-State,” he said. “This is really a partnership.”

Other projects

There are several projects going on in Ironton right now that are working toward beautifying downtown.

America in Bloom is working on streetscaping and is trying to convince business owners to decorate the downtown businesses with flowers in hanging baskets and planters.

Ironton has already received a $200,000 facade improvement grant for the Marlow building and is also seeking money from the KYOVA interstate planning commission.

The Downtown Ironton Organization is working to get the Main Street project going. KYOVA will be bringing bus service back to town within a year.

Kline explained that revitalizing a downtown is similar to a ladder.

“Every time you take a step up, hopefully you bring the rest of it up with you,” he said. “Right now, it seems like we are getting up the ladder.”