Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

November 15, 2013

Signs of progress

Hotel and restaurant project rare positive news for Ironton

The Independent

ASHLAND — In many communities, the construction of a Holiday Inn Express and a Frisch’s Big Boy restaurant would be considered a rather minor story meriting only a brief mention on the business pages of the local newspaper. But in Ironton, Ohio, having a company based in Florida willing to invest so heavily in the community is big news indeed.

After all, the last 30 years have been rough ones for the city’s economy. Industries like Wilson Sporting Goods, Portland Cement and many others have shutdown, eliminating hundreds of good-paying industrial jobs in the once-thriving industrial town. During the same period, far more retail businesses have closed than have opened. Even the hospital closed.

If there was ever a town that needs some positive economic news, it surely is Ironton.

The hotel and restaurant on a four-acre site on Ninth Street just off U.S. 52 is not just a rumor or a proposal. Construction on the 79-unit hotel with an indoor pool is under way, and when it is completed — or perhaps sooner — work on the restaurant will begin. It may not be big news in a large city, but the construction of the hotel and restaurant could well be the biggest economic development project since the construction many years ago of the shopping center on Ohio 93 near U.S. 52 where McDonald’s is still located and Hill’s once stood. The number of businesses that have closed in Ironton since then would be too long and depressing to list.

At the very least, the hotel being built by MPH Hotels of St. Petersburg, Fla., will provide travelers or visitors a decent place to spend the night, and the Frisch’s Big Boy will give the city a good, family restaurant in which to dine. Long-time residents of this city can remember when there was a Frisch’s on 13th Street where a Mexican restaurant now is, and people in Ohio know the Frisch’s name well.

The project is taking place on a site that had been acquired to lure economic development by Old Engineer Property LLC, a partnership among the Ironton Port Authority, the Lawrence County Port Authority, the Ironton-Lawrence County Community Action Organization and the Lawrence Economic Development Corp. It includes the site of the former Dennis J. Boll Group and Shelter Home, the former county engineer’s garage and some other properties.

The partnership holds two more adjacent acres it will offer to subsequent investors for shops, other restaurants and the like.

“This project has been talked about for many, many years. People have said for a long time that Ironton needs a hotel,” said Ironton Mayor Rich Blankenship. “In the six years I’ve been mayor, we’ve talked to six different hotel developers.”

When a project is talked about for years with little real indication of much progress, people tend to conclude it will never happen, particularly in cities like Ironton where residents are used to being disappointed. But now that the Holiday Inn Express is actually being built, Mayor Blankenship and many other residents hope the good news does not stop there.

Blankenship expects the development to enhance Ironton’s economic standing. “Any time you put $14 million or $15 million into the economy you’re going to see growth,” he said. He anticipates it will add 80 to 90 jobs and enhance surrounding property values.

Even if the project never goes beyond a hotel and a restaurant, it could be a positive economic tool for Ironton in helping the city attract other retailers. Ironton has hundreds of prime industrial and commercial property ready for development. It has access to the Ohio River, a rail line and U.S. 52. The 1923 bridge that links downtown Ironton with Russell will soon be history, and the new span gives Ironton direct access to U.S. 23.

All these are positive signs that should lead to a brighter future for Ironton. The town needs and deserves a healthy dose of good news.