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Ground broken on assisted living facility

IRONTON — If historic, yet abandoned buildings could show facial expressions, a smile as large as Center Street would have come from the St. Lawrence O’Toole Community Center on Friday.

The long-vacant building, which sat unused for more than 20 years, got a new lease on life when ground was broken on its rehabilitation as the new address for Close to Home III, Ironton’s soon-to-be only assisted-living facility.

The mid-afternoon ceremony was attended by nearly 40 people including leaders in politics, religion and business, who saw the first shovels of dirt turned on the $3.2 million project that will convert the century-old building into a 35-unit facility estimated to create 30 new jobs.

The event was hosted by radio personality Chuck Black of 93.7 FM.

Close to Home III co-owner Sharon Hartwig, of Ashland, Ky., told those in attendance that Friday’s groundbreaking was a “result of patience and persistence.” It comes nearly five years after developers first announced their intentions for converting St. Lawrence O’Toole Community Center.

“I want to say thank you to the community and for those who supported us,” Hartwig said.

Hartwig co-owns the property with Charles Kunkel of Wilmington, Ohio, as St. Lawrence O’Toole Gardens, LLC. Kunkel did not publicly address the media or those in attendance, but outlined in a statement released Thursday the importance of having a project like Close to Home III in Lawrence County and why the historic building was a fit.

“Finding a new use for this important historic building is a point of pride for the Ironton community,” the statement read. “Lawrence County has needed an assisted living facility for quite some time. We look forward to bringing this new resource to the region.”

Besides Ironton, the group also has facilities in Middletown, Ashland, Ky. and Huntington, W.Va. Lawrence County makes a good fit for an assisted living facility as residents available for such accommodations currently must use facilities outside of the county.

Others were just as impressed.

“This will not only enhance the community, but will bring jobs to the community,” Ironton Mayor Rich Blankenship said.

“When our program team met Sharon Hartwig and Charlie Kunkel, we were inspired by their dream of reclaiming this vacant historic building for their community,” said James R. Klein, chief executive officer of Finance Fund, the major financing arm of the project. “We believe Close to Home III will enhance the economic vitality of the region for many years to come.”

The Close to Home difference

Finance Fund is a nonprofit Columbus-based corporation that provides low-interest loans for projects in specific areas of the state.

For Close to Home III, Finance Fund lent $2.7 million through the corporation’s New Market’s Tax Credit program, which is earmarked for redevelopment projects in disadvantaged communities within the state.

The program offers tax credits to businesses, nonprofits and individuals while encouraging them to allocate money into groups like Finance Fund.

Terms of the loan have the note amortized over 30 years but payable in seven.

The loan carries a below-market rate and is stretched over long periods of time to keep monthly payments low. The funds cannot be used for operational costs.

In this project, monies will be used to rehabilitate the historic 11,910- square-foot building along with constructing an 8,316-square-foot addition.

It will also be used for equipment purchases, sidewalk improvements and other infrastructure repairs.

The remaining financing for the project came in the form of a $500,000 loan from the city of Ironton, which was administered as a grant through the Ohio Department of Development.

Other funding included community block grants and financing through the Huntington-Ironton Empowerment Zone.

The architect of the new design is Decker and Associates of Middletown, Ohio, while the general contractor listed for the project is H.A. Dorsten, Inc. of Minster, Ohio.

When completed, the facility will be able to hold 35 units of different sizes and dimensions. Besides housing units, the first floor will contain a kitchen, office, closets and a large foyer.

The second floor will consist of all living units with nine in the original structure and 11 in the to-be-build expansion.

Neither Hartwig nor Kunkel discussed any of the details, services or features of the proposed Close to Home Center III during the public portion of the groundbreaking, however a handout provided showed the facility to be state of the art in terms of amenities and expectations.

Some of the features the facility will offer include a fireside living room, private dining room, television lounges, beauty and barber shop, a therapeutic spa and a chapel.

Several of the services listed were emergency call systems throughout the building, 24-hour oversight and care, dietician-advised meals and scheduled activities.

Hartwig said she anticipates an April 2010 opening, “if things go well.”

The guest of honor

Despite all the dignitaries from throughout the region that came to Ironton Friday afternoon, the main guest of honor had to be the St. Lawrence O’Toole Community Center itself.

Soon to be transformed into an envied assisted-living facility, the centenarian building stood there as a shell of its yesteryear.

Built in 1910, the former school served as home to grades 1 through 8 until the early 1980s when it ceased being used as the Catholic grade school for the Ironton Catholic community.

It was then used as a community center for several years.

On July 2, the parish sold the property to St. Lawrence O’Toole Gardens, LLC. The Lawrence County Auditor’s office listed the transaction price as $51,000.

Entering the building is like taking a step back in time.

A musty odor overwhelms. Ribbons of paint hang from the ceiling. The quarter-sawn floorboards welcome any type of foot traffic.

Walking further, dust covers the facing stairwells that will be saved as part of the Close to Home III rehabilitation. The muffled creeks each step makes whispers a different story while ascending upward towards the second floor.

At the top, the hot afternoon sun blazes a rainbow of colors into the building and onto a long-forgotten film strip projector through its trademark stained glass window located above the former entrance.

Weathered from more than two decades of emptiness and attempted vandalism, the colorful window sits center with its fountain pen, lamp and diploma still visible on the glass from 30 feet away. Architect plans include keeping the window cleaning and repairing it as part of the new facility.

Also being kept and repaired is the cross attached to one of the gables of the roof. The roof shingles will be replaced with a new standing seam metal roof.

The blackboards have long been removed. The paint in one of the old second floor classrooms peels in a way that it looks like hundreds of soft green Post-It-Notes clinging to the wall.

Plywood covers much of the broken second floors windows. Outside the intricate friezes below the roof are nearly naked from a lack of paint.

But that does not matter now.

Even after the shovels and hardhats were put away and its participants drove off, St. Lawrence O’Toole Community Center was still smiling and was not going to stop.

It had waited more than five years for this day. And now a sign was perched into one of its south-facing windows announcing new life was coming in the form of Close to Home III.

Life that could keep the building resurrected for another 100 years.