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City leaders look ahead at projects

(Editor’s note: This is the first of a four-part series looking at the priorities set by Ironton leaders.)

Ironton is a river town that met its glory days when the pig iron industry was booming. Now, over a century after the collapse of the industry and, consequently, Ironton’s flourishing economic climate, Mayor Rich Blankenship is hoping to resurrect the glory days and make the city thrive again.

Blankenship has laid out four priorities for Ironton’s development: Create jobs, build a hotel, revitalize downtown, and to create and improve its recreational facilities. Although the revitalization of downtown is third on the list, the changes that will come upon its completion will be most evident and noticeable.

“Here in Ironton we’ve been working real hard to find a different approach to turn the city around,” said Bill Dickens, Ironton’s economic development director. “Lots of people will be surprised over how much is happening.”

There are a variety of projects happening downtown.

According to Dickens, the city is looking for Ironton citizens who are interested in opening small businesses in order to elevate the downtown economy and to improve the overall look and the landscape of storefronts. He said people have approached him with a range of ideas for niche businesses including toys, bikes, antiques, vintage clothing and craft shops.

“These are all solid people with good ideas,” Dickens said. “We can’t actually get them to jump into it.”

Store fronts are not the only way that Blankenship’s administration is trying to restore Ironton.

The Depot Square entertainment project is planned to not only provide a place of business for local farmers, but alos a visually appealing entertainment area for locals to enjoy, said Dickens.

He said the plan is to have a canopied area where a farmers market can meet, a concrete wall between the railroad tracks and the canopy to prevent people from wandering on the tracks, and a stage built under the bridge area.

The wall will be adorned with an indented railroad scene, said Dickens. He said the project will take more than $500,000 to complete.

Other projects happening downtown include the lofts project, a plan to create livable apartments downtown and the creation of a transit center at the corner of Second and Vernon streets.

All of this, Blankenship said, is just leading in to the real key to revitalizing downtown: The restoration of the Ro-Na theater.

“We are bringing quality entertainment back to Ironton,” said Katrina Keith, Ironton claims specialist and former secretary to the mayor. “It supports the economy of a downtown community.”

Keith said that an average of $20 is put into the economy for every movie ticket purchased. This, she said, is a result of people’s tendency to do multiple activities along with the movie, including shopping or going out to dinner.

The city is now initiating a fundraising campaign to raise money for the first phase of the project — roof restoration. Dickens said that the city needs $200,000 to complete the project and currently has $33,000. He also said that he hopes to get grant funding for the remainder of the three phases — faade and interior repairs and building refurbishment.

“In order to get grant funding we need to show community support,” Dickens said.

Blankenship said that work has already begun on the building including an overall cleanup and the removal of the roof and asbestos.

“We are not sitting idle,” he said. Blankenship also said that the project will improve the surrounding buildings as well.

The finished theater, Dickens said, will be comparable to the Paramount Arts Center as far as seating style. Although there are plans to widen the stage area, the building as a whole will be historically restored.

“We want to keep it consistent with the original architecture,” Dickens said. The Ro-Na’s design is modeled after the art deco movement of the 1920s, a modern cubism-inspired style that remained popular until the late 1940s.

Keith said that the theater will not limit itself to showing movies. Rather, she envisions it being used for art fairs, concerts, meeting rooms, wedding ceremonies — really anything needing a venue with lots of seating or meeting rooms.

“It will serve Lawrence county and all of the Tri-State area,” Blankenship said.

Dickens said that the current climate of Ironton is advantageous for the restoration. He also said that anyone who is willing to volunteer time to assist with the fundraising campaign will be sincerely welcomed.

Donations for the project can be sent to:

The Ro-Na Restoration Project

PO Box 704

Ironton, OH 45638.

All contributions are tax deductible.

“We think this is something the city has to do,” Dickens said.