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Must strengthen our hearts

Driving through town the other day it struck me that, in this ever-changing landscape of the American economy our downtowns have to once again become the vibrant hearts of our communities, pumping commerce and prosperity to the rest of our cities.

For decades that was the case. All across the nation, brownstones and other structural styles of buildings were built to last and these were the anchors of small-town America’s main streets.

That all began to change with urban sprawl over the past five decades or so. Development began moving away from downtown streets, a change that killed foot traffic and created empty store fronts across the country.

Couple that with steady industrial job loss since about 1980 and the Tri-State was hit hard, maybe as hard as anywhere in the nation.

Thankfully though, that is starting to change, albeit slowly.

Pullman Square has done wonders for downtown Huntington, injecting new life into many blocks and creating a dining and entertainment district that draws people from across the region.

Ashland has made solid strides with its downtown building renovations and some big announcements could be on the horizon.

Ironton has made huge improvements as well with the farmers market, Friends of Ironton sprayground, the ongoing restoration of the Ro-Na Theater, Depot Square and the transit center serving as the shining examples, with more on the horizon.

But much remains to be done.

Ironton needs to refresh its downtown development plan also to prioritize efforts and incorporate all the facets — public spending, private investment and community organizations — that are making a difference.

Of course this plan has to include the riverfront.

A recent visit to Point Pleasant showed me what can be accomplished. This rivertown is not much different than Ironton or Ashland, yet seems farther ahead on development in many regards.

Their riverfront park is spectacular. The floodwall murals are engaging and interactive. The entire area is clean and well maintained. Several small parks offer urban green space. Niche shops help draw people downtown.

It would be a good idea for economic development leaders, politicians and concerned citizens to tour other river towns like Point Pleasant, Parkersburg and Marietta to get new ideas and a broader perspective. Progress has been made on Ironton’s riverfront but it remains a diamond in the rough.

Revitalizing Ironton’s downtown won’t happen with a magic bullet that fixes all the problems at once. It will take a combined effort to create entertainment, dining, shopping and living opportunities. But the city has made progress and now is the time to take it to the next level.

If the heart is strong, then the body will follow.


Michael Caldwell is publisher of The Tribune. To reach him, call (740) 532-1445 ext. 24 or by e-mail at mike.caldwell@irontontribune.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeCaldwell_IT.