Race is on for three
Jobs, projects, the budget big issues for Ironton mayoral candidates
When Ironton voters go to the polls in November, they will be asked to elect a mayor to lead the city for the next fours years.
Three men are vying to be the city’s chief executive officer: incumbent Rich Blankenship, city councilman Bob Cleary and retired city employee Karl Wentz.
Ironton Mayor Rich Blankenship is seeking his second term as mayor. Prior to that he worked for Lawrence County Children’s Services and was a city councilman. Blankenship said he decided to run again because he genuinely likes people and wants to improve the way of life here.
Blankenship said, four years ago, Ironton was not what it is today.
“Businesses were moving out. The city was less-than-desirable to look at. We had infrastructure problems and very little in the way of medical facilities,” he said.
“Within two weeks of taking office, I had a company with 20 employees come to me and say they had to move and would I help them find a new building.”
He did. And they stayed.
Blankenship said in these tough economic times, it is just as important to retain jobs already here as it is to bring in new ones and he said he has done both.
He pointed to 22 new businesses that have set up shop in the city within the last three years. Among them are Swift Manufacturing, Thornton Cabinet Shop, Tackett’s Body Shop, Leto’s Italian Deli and M&M Inflatables.
Blankenship is proud of the new jobs that have come about as a result of those new businesses and is equally pleased with the $9 million expansion of Liebert Corp.
Another thing he is proud of is the push to demolish dilapidated buildings. The city rid itself of 58 such properties last year alone.
“That was a record number last year,” he said. “A lot of our success this year is by owner agreement. We’re getting them to tear down (their dilapidated buildings).”
“We’ve made tremendous infrastructure improvements,” Blankenship said.
Several major projects are either in the works or have come to fruition within the last three-and-a-half years: the replacement of the Nixon Hill water tank, the sewer line project, water line replacement and a new water meter reader system, which Blankenship says saves time and money.
The riverfront remediation is another project Blankenship takes pride in.
He is also pleased with efforts to lure new medical facilities into the city, such as the new St. Mary’s Medical Center facility being built at State Route 141 and U.S. 52, King’s Daughters Medical Center’s urgent care on Park Avenue near the U.S. 52 interchange and the Fresenius kidney dialysis center on North Second Street.
Blankenship is also proud of the improvements made to Etna and Eighth Street parks and to Moulton Field. Sports courts have been repaired, swing sets and other children’s play equipment have been upgraded or replaced and Etna Street now boasts a skate park.
Blankenship credits his vigorous pursuit of grants as the means by which the city has been able to pay for some improvements. In the last 3-and-a-half years, Blankenship says he has gotten $10 million in grants for the city, money earmarked for a specific project or kind of project that does not have to be repaid.
Blankenship said he is not skittish about confronting state leaders in an effort to get them to listen to the city’s issues. Thursday Ohio Department of Transportation leaders informed him they would not delay the bid process for the new Ironton-Russell Bridge until summer 2012 but proceed with plans to award a bid this year.
The challenges in the future include continuation of the city’s combined sewer separation project and finding money to help pay for it. He wants to work to find new occupants for the South Ironton Industrial Park.
“I want the town to be all it can be, a town we can all be proud of and that other cities look up to for advice,” Blankenship said.
Cleary is a sitting city councilman. He is also owner of BC Tool Rental and a few other small businesses. He previously served as the city’s mayor for six years and as vice mayor for eight years.
Why did he decide to run for mayor?
“That’s a simple question with a complicated answer,” he laughed. “Over the last four years I have sat on council and it seems that basic services are not being provided properly. The streets are an example. I don’t think there’s a street in Ironton you can go down without dodging potholes. The alleys are in deplorable condition. Things are not getting done,” he said.
Cleary said he is concerned that, while services are not what they should be, people are being asked to pay more and more for them.
“I think instead of spending money we should be looking for ways to save money,” Cleary said.
Cleary said he is not pleased with the city’s new water tank on Nixon Hill. He said there is a hillside slip that has not been repaired and he thinks the city should have installed a line over the hill to better serve Indian Hills and the south end of town, both of which have water pressure problems. He also took issue with the area not being properly secured from vandals.
Cleary said the installation of a new water tank helped reduce operating costs for water service and he would like to pass some of the savings along to residents.
Cleary said the city needs to have its own in-house engineer and not rely on outside firms to handle city projects. He said the city charter requires the city to have its own engineer. He said he believes the city could save thousands of dollars by having an engineer of its own.
“An in-house engineer works for us. He safeguards against some of the issues that may arise with contractors,” Cleary said.
Cleary said he would like to see more attention given to job creation. He said in the last four years 17 businesses have closed their doors, among them, The Tackle Box, which moved to South Point, Rick’s Bar-B-Que, Scrubs, Austyn’s and New 2 You clothing store.
“We’ve had a few people come in and try to start businesses. But when they’re struggling I don’t think enough is being done by the current administration to help them,” he said. “There needs to be a more concerted effort to retain business.”
He said he would also like to see an effort made to construct a spec building in the South Ironton Industrial Park. A spec, or shell, building would be used to entice larger, perhaps more industrial entities to locate within the city.
“The Point (industrial park in South Point) has eight spec buildings. We have none,” Cleary said. “Large employers do not want to come in and look at property; most do not want to wait until a building is built. This would be one of my top priorities.”
He said he would also work to closely supervise the city budget.
Cleary said he is most proud of the new fire station and the new water treatment plant that were built during his tenure as mayor.
Cleary said his years of experience make him the best candidate for the job.
“Over the years I have been able to help the citizens of Ironton when they have a problem,” he said, “If I am elected mayor I can again be there for the citizens of Ironton.”
Wentz retired from the city as a building code enforcement officer after 14 years. Prior to that he spent 15 years on city council. He said he is running because he thinks the city can be run more efficiently.
“I think the city would be better served with an in-house engineer rather than paying a consultant,” Wentz said. He said the city has paid approximately $1 million to outside firms for various projects and he thinks the work could be done with less cost if the city hired an engineer and staffed an office to handle city projects.
Wentz said he also thinks the city could cut landfill costs by charging city residents when they bring unwanted items to the city garage. Right now the city allows residents to bring large items to the city garage and the unwanted items are then taken to a landfill at no cost to the resident; the city pays the landfill fee. Wentz said residents who do this should pay some kind of fee for the service.
Wentz said he is also disappointed the street department is so severely understaffed. Wentz said he does not believe the workers are able to do an adequate job maintaining streets.
“I think that’s why the streets are in such disrepair,” he said. “I don’t feel the citizens are getting the benefits for all the taxes they pay.”
Wentz would like to see the city create a land bank comprised of properties throughout the city that have been abandoned or left blighted. The properties, acquired by the city, could be then sold to people who would be more responsible property owners. Right now the city pays for the demolition of the blighted houses and buildings but the property owners often keep their land.
“Right now its just dead expense,” he said. Wentz said is proud that, during his tenure as city building code enforcement officer, the city demolished 300 such structures.
“This city looks better today than it did five years ago,” he said.
Wentz said he is most proud of establishing the city’s first uniform code office and implementing a property maintenance program that is used to address the issue of dilapidated properties, which was done while he was a city building code enforcement officer. Prior to the creation of this office, the issue of blighted properties was addressed by the fire department.
Wentz said he would also like to see the city continue to develop its industrial park and said he is encouraged by the development of the riverfront property. He said he would also like to provide more resources to the city’s economic development efforts in an effort to lure more business and industry into the city.
“I think this could be one of the biggest attractions in the area,” he said. “But I hate it that it always seems like we lag behind everyone else and are the last (for such projects).”
Wentz said he is running because he is proud of his city and would like to see it prosper.
“I think it can be booming again the way it once was,” he said.