EAST LIVERPOOL - As with most visionaries, Matthew Godfrey was looked at somewhat crazy when he suggested transforming the faltering former railroad hub of Ogden, Utah, into a recreation mecca.
Now, he expects there will be those who say the same as he and his company, Better City LLC, begin the process of trying to revitalize the former pottery capital of the world.
But Godfrey, who served 11 years as Ogden's mayor before going into the private sector, said he believes East Liverpool has much the same potential as he first saw in Ogden.
City Council recently approved hiring Better City, and Godfrey addressed officials and other interested parties at a recent meet and greet at City Hall.
There, he offered up a slide show that convinced even some of the more skeptical in the audience that, if it could happen in Ogden, it can happen here.
Ogden realized "tremendous prosperity" from the railroad, until the trains stopped running through town in the 1960s.
"Ogden didn't change. It kept being a railroad town," Godfrey said.
What happened there is similar to East Liverpool's downturn after the closure of potteries and area steel mills: Abandoned factories and storefronts and vacant homes.
Among his slides, Godfrey showed a downtown eerily resembling East Liverpool's, with buildings that had stood empty for 30 or 40 years.
Then, he became mayor and encouraged Ogden to "stop being a railroad town and be something it made the most sense to be."
With hiking and biking trails, golf courses and three ski resorts in the area and two rivers in the downtown which Godfrey joked would be called "cricks" in this Ohio River city his plan was to re-define Ogden as a recreation area.
"When we said this railroad town needs to build kayak parks, they thought we were crazy," he said.
Saying "a lot of energy went into development," Godfrey showed the almost miraculous transformation of blighted neighborhoods, empty buildings and vacant, junk-strewn parking lots into what Ogden has become today.
"The first thing the town had to do was clean up. You can't bring jobs in without cleaning up the downtown. They want to see that your downtown is clean and presentable, and Ogden was not there," Godfrey admitted.
"There were very few blocks we didn't completely renovate," he added.
The crowning glory could well be the Salomon Center that holds a climbing wall, indoor surfing and indoor sky diving, where a failed mall once stood.
"When the indoor sky diving was proposed, "they looked at us like we had a third eye," Godfrey said of the townspeople.
Saying it was a "high, high risk proposal," Godfrey said the Salomon Center ended up tremendously successful, also housing what became the number one Gold's Gym in the nation.
Another blighted building was transformed into a restaurant that now employs 750 people, and an area that Godfrey said once was "the place you went of you were homeless, looking for a prostitute or a fight" is now filled with boutiques, restaurants and residences.
Where empty warehouses once stood, a brick-facade Walmart stands today, and Godfrey said, "We didn't pay a dime in incentives. It took up a 35-acre parcel we wouldn't have been able to clean up ourselves."
A 13-screen theater city officials had to beg the owner to build has now become his top-performing theater.
With the focus on recreation, the town also recruited a number of like-minded industries, including Scott, which plans to move its headquarters from the Sun Valley to Ogden.
"Ogden wasn't even on (these companies') radar screen before we came, and they paved the way for others," Godfrey said, noting the town now boasts Home Depot, Hershey's and Fair Way, among others.
The economic development project resulted in $1.3 billion in investment, recruited 8,000 jobs and more than 130 downtown acres re-developed, with another 80 currently under development.
Ogden has been recognized as first in job growth, as the second-best USA city to move to, the sixth best city to live in and the 11th best for business.
Over the 10-year development period, the overall crime rate dropped by 31 percent, and violent crime by 50 percent.
Better City is doing similar work in other communities, but Godfrey said Ogden is a "good example of what we've done and what we can do here."
The two areas have similar issues, he said, noting, "We just have to re-define what East Liverpool is," cautioning it will take people willing to invest in the city for the plans to work.
Pointing out that oil and gas companies are "looking around," Godfrey admitted the area has lost out on most of those opportunities but the goal needs to be to "create a compelling story why they should come here."
He said, "We need to go back to the people and get them excited about East Liverpool."
Service-Safety Director Ryan Estell said the company is currently in the "homework phase," gathering information.