Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

November 20, 2013

Ironton has celebration for center

Mike James
The Independent

IRONTON — The ceremonial groundbreaking Tuesday of a hotel-restaurant complex in Ironton is the first phase in what officials and investors there hope will be a continuing redevelopment effort.

With bulldozers growling behind them, dignitaries tossed shovelsful of dirt in the air at the eight-acre site on South Ninth Street near the downtown U.S. 52 interchange.

The ceremony marked the start of construction of a Holiday Inn Express hotel and Frisch’s Big Boy restaurant on the site.

City and county officials, along with the project’s investors, have a bigger picture in mind, however.

The groundbreaking kicks off what the city is calling the Gateway Center Project, designed to be people and pedestrian friendly, according to Ralph Kline, assistant executive director of development and planning for the Ironton-Lawrence County Community Action Organization.

The center focuses on green space and streetscape improvements, including pocket parks and other features, to attract customers to its businesses.

The $11 million project complements Ironton’s other downtown redevelopment efforts, Kline said.

The 79-unit hotel, which will employ 25 workers, will have a 24-hour indoor pool and exercise facility, high-speed internet, business center and complimentary breakfast among its amenities. Fifteen of the units will be suites.

The restaurant will employ 100 and will feature a hot breakfast bar, soup and salad bar, drive through and carryout service.

The positions will be filled through Ironton’s Workforce Development Center.

About 90 percent of the project’s financing was local, said Jim Kratzenberg, one of the major investors. The development has been simmering since 2004, when he bought the first property at the site, he said. It faltered during the 2008-2009 recession, when banks were reluctant to lend money, but was revived when the economy improved, he said.

Frisch’s corporate officials initially were reluctant to locate in Ironton, telling him they preferred Ashland, he said. “We said we’re from Ironton and we want to invest here,” he said.

Conversations with locals changed their minds, according to Frisch’s director of construction John Hunter. “We’ve spoken to many people who are thrilled we’re coming back,” he said. Currently the closest Big Boy restaurants are in Maysville and Chillicothe, Ohio.

Kratzenberg expects the restaurant to prosper. “We’re a Big Boy town and we have been for years. The prices are affordable and it’s in walking distance for many people, including the high-rises,” he said.

The site includes further lots for development, and a separate investor has expressed interest in converting the former National Guard Armory building on the site into a restaurant, Kratzenberg said. “I don’t think this will be the end of it.”

The businesses and their jobs will boost the city’s fortunes, Mayor Rich Blankenship said. “Bringing additional revenue and 100 plus jobs to the community will definitely help our financial situation,” he said.

In addition to local investor money, the city and county port authority paid $800,000 for streets, sidewalks, utilities and other improvements. Other public funding includes a $500,000 HUD Community Development Block Grant and a $150,000 State Appalachian Grant.

The restaurant is expected to be completed by spring and the hotel by mid to late summer.

Information on remaining lots available for development is available through the Lawrence Economic Development Corp. at (740) 377-4550.