Future of riverfront property in limbo

Published 10:11 am Friday, August 8, 2014

Then there were three.

The future of riverfront property in Ironton has become somewhat sought-after since the proprietors of the former Fuzzy Duck were evicted this past April.

Since the eviction several entities have expressed interest in the property, some for the building itself and some for the riverfront as a whole.

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Representatives from three interested parties — Friends of Ironton, the Lawrence County Port Authority and salesman Rick Stamper — were all in attendance at a specially called council meeting on Thursday to state their cases.

“The property is back in the city’s name since the eviction,” Ironton mayor Rich Blankenship, said. “I had the health department clean it out and get rid of everything inside; it’s pretty much a shell now. I want to do something with it because it’s going to become a gathering place for people we don’t want to be gathering there.”

Vice Mayor Kevin Waldo discussed the laws and requirements a city must abide by when rights to real estate have reverted back to a municipality.

“When a city or any municipality owns a piece of real estate and they want to distribute that real estate to another entity or person we are bound by the municipal laws of the State of Ohio as to how that happens,” he said. “The law requires transferring real estate through an open bidding process. It’s not only required in the sense that we deed the property. It’s also required when we lease the property.” Creating port authorities, Waldo said, has been a way to sidestep requirements set by the state.

“Port authorities are a kind of pseudo-government entity,” he said. “When we deed property from the city to the port authority they are not bound by the same rules and regulations a city is. Therefore, they can transfer real estate — it’s anticipated and hoped that they will do that with the best interest of the city that delivered the property to them — but they aren’t bound by the rules pertaining to bidding.”

By deeding the property to the LCPA it could entertain interested parties just as the city has begun to do, Waldo said, and they could lease the property from the LCPA to another interested entity or person.

Waldo asked Rick Jansen of the Friends of Ironton from where the estimated $1.8 million necessary to develop the property to the Friends of Ironton’s specifications would come.

“We’ve made crazier investments and one is the Ro-Na across the street,” Jansen said. “It’s for the good of the community. We continue with the same fundraising efforts we have now and bringing in another element to our fundraising with The Great River Raffle where we can plan on earning $400,000-$600,000 a year. We do the Rally (on the River). We sell beer at every event and do a bunch of different things to help raise money to put back in this community and we are all passionate about it. We have about 125 people in the Friends (of Ironton) who are always there helping. We will find a way to make the money.”

Jansen said he spoke to Ironton-Lawrence County Community Action Organization Assistant Executive Director Ralph Kline about some public funds that might be available to build a seawall.

“My concern is that the building, if developed as is, would basically be the same underperforming asset that we’ve had,” Jansen said. “After 30 or 40 years it’s time to upgrade to something that will be highly utilized and a real jewel for the city.”

There was some discussion about whether to lease or deed the property.

“I’m not interested in deeding the property,” Bob Cleary, council member, said. “I’d feel better leasing it to them. That way they can still make the deal but the city retains ownership of the property and it would typically be written that if we want to terminate the lease we can do it and if they want to terminate the lease with us they can.”

Council member Aaron Bollinger said he also favors a lease.

“We know about some of the plans,” Bollinger said. “Ultimately we can’t just pick someone who has a plan; it comes down to a bid or it goes to an entity.”

Jansen said it’s obvious with the Friends of Ironton’s proposal the group’s interest is building a first-class facility.

“It would be comparable to the best restaurant and facility in Columbus, Cincinnati or Pittsburgh,” he said. “There is not another city I am aware of that has such a great view. We have a golden nugget on our hands and we know what we need to do to develop it.”

Jansen said he hasn’t discussed the FOI plan with Lawrence County Economic Development Corporation Executive Director Bill Dingus but thinks they have similar visions.

“The LEDC has been a great partner of ours in continuing to push (the Ro-Na) project along,” Jansen said. “At first I don’t know how warm they were to the (Ro-Na restoration) idea and now they have seen we are going to get this project completed. What would you like to see in Ironton? What would make sense? What would bring travel and tourism to Ironton? Everybody here drives the Scioto Ribber for whatever reason. I mean, it’s a great steak, but people come from an hour in every direction to eat a steak dinner. We can find something to do in this community that would draw people.”

A recent river mussel study, however, could render some efforts moot.

“If it is determined there is no way to do any type of development on the river, if there’s no ability to have boat races, jet ski rentals or fishing tournaments, if we can’t get permits to do things like this this all might go back to the way it was two years ago,” Jansen said. “(The FOI) just (has) a desire to do this and it be something special for the community. I think we’ve proven ourselves over the last decade with the things we’ve done and want to continue doing with the Ro-Na and the spray park and different donations to different groups that we are about a better standard of living.”

Bollinger said the FOI has proven itself by taking on hard projects and succeeding in completing them.

“Along those same lines I don’t think this business as it sits right now — whether it’s a great restaurant with great food in the same building — will be successful unless there are major changes made to this like you proposed,” Bollinger said to Jansen. “I just don’t think it will be successful. There’s got to be a change.”

Rick Stamper, who is also interested in the property, also spoke to council.

“I know I can’t wow you with drawings and things like that,” he said. “But what I can wow you with is the product of a proven business that has been successful. I kind of agree with (Jansen) and I respectfully disagree in a certain aspect. I got to visit and view the building and it’s rough and it’s going to take $40,000-$60,000 out of our own pockets to fix but we have a plan to use the existing building and fix it up to where it needs to be.”

Stamper said he plans to put barn wood on the outside and install a large window so people can watch barges go by while having dinner.

“From my vantage point I think the port authority is receptive to support whatever the preference would be,” Dingus said. “We only ask if you decide to do a lease to look at a conventional lease that is long enough and allows someone to borrow on leaseholds and so on.”

Dingus added that the port authority could be active or act as a pass-through and that either way the port authority would assist and make decisions based on the city’s priorities.

“Our responsibility is to serve the community the best way we can and we’ll pledge to do that,” he said. “The real value in going with the port authority is it gives you the time to work with someone especially when talking about grants and infrastructure and getting things in place. A hard bid means hard cash. We would want to be able to work with the leaseholder to maximize the things available to them. If (the city) wants to do it the Port authority will be your No. 1 cheerleader, if you want us to facilitate we’ll help do that. If you want us to take it a step further and develop a request for proposal based on priorities and receive proposals, we are open to any of three.”

Cleary said he thinks the best course of action would be to move forward quickly.

“A bidding process would take at least two months,” he said. “I’ve been through bidding issues like this, several of them, and by putting it out for bid it opens it up for everyone. Anyone who fits the criteria set forth in the bid package has the right to be considered as the lucky winner. I just think that if we use the Port authority — that’s the direction I would want to go — if we lease it to them they are absolutely experts at getting money and work hand-in-hand with people at the state level. Instead of going through the bid process we could sign a lease agreement with the port authority and immediately they could put the deal together with someone and have it up and running in just a couple weeks. Of the groups that have shown interest, the port authority has showed the most. With the expertise they have they could make this happen much, much quicker. I think it would be to the advantage of this city to go with the port authority.”

Council entered into executive session to discuss the property and Blankenship said an announcement should be made at council’s regular meeting next Thursday.