By CHELSEA DAVIS
Courier staff writer
---- — OTTUMWA — The Ottumwa Leadership Academy's first class of graduates has a new outlook on the community and has worked for nearly a year to address four overarching issues.
The academy, funded by Ottumwa Regional Legacy Foundation, graduated its first class of 18 students Thursday night. The once-a-month, 10-month program had participants delve into issues in Ottumwa and Wapello County, ranging from quality of life to local government to human and community services.
The program is an opportunity that employers can offer to those employees they feel could benefit from further professional development and involvement in the community, said the academy's executive director, Hollie Tometich.
"Our mission is really to develop effective community leaders for the benefit of the community," she said. "If you want to get involved but don't know how to start, this is a great way to do it. Or if you're already involved, this is a way to extend your reach ... another way to have some doors opened."
Graduation gave each group an opportunity to unveil the results of their projects: "Welcome to Ottumwa," the business advocate project, sports facilities and product distribution to the food insecure.
One group was tasked with assessing the possibility of a new sports facility in Ottumwa. Lori Reeves said the group spoke with the town's different youth sports groups to determine whether their current facilities were adequate and if a new sports facility would be a good idea.
"Of course soccer really wants something new, because their fields are completely inadequate," Reeves said. "Softball has five fields, but only two are regulation size. And there are some innate problems in Ottumwa Park. There's low water pressure, meaning you can't flush a toilet more often than every five minutes. There's poor lighting, no parking and ambulances have trouble getting in and out. There's also no way to funnel people to charge them [for entry into a tournament]."
There are also issues within Ottumwa's three little leagues: American, National and Midwest. Since all three are on separate fields, there is that much more to maintain.
"If they were all centrally located, it would take less money," she said. "You would only have one set of restrooms, one set of concessions."
The business advocate project was geared toward examining the gap between current and prospective business owners and available resources.
Ottumwa needs a "central point of contact," said Kelly Genners, someone who can "play matchmaker" between the empty storefronts and lots and pair them with prospective business owners.
"They would take everything we have and just magnify it," Genners said. "A lot of people want to open a business, but they don't know where to go or who to talk to."
The focus of "Welcome to Ottumwa" was to find ways to grab the attention of newcomers in town and involve them in the community.
"People are coming to town and not being welcomed," said Linda Whittington. "We've talked to people who have moved to Ottumwa, and they said they were welcomed in communities they lived in prior, but when they came here they were just clueless. We're proposing a nonprofit agency, and we developed a website, Facebook, Twitter and postcards that would be handed out at businesses when people move to town."
Another benefit of welcoming newcomers is that they'll be more likely to stay, she said.
"We're really hoping it takes off," she said. "We're proposing that the Chamber of Commerce picks it up and the person is sponsored by area businesses. That person would meet with new residents, give them tours to prospective hires ... and also hold monthly or bi-monthly newcomer events."
Another group looked at food insecurity in the region. Yvonne Baldwin-Greene said they found it was important to highlight the difference between a food bank and a food pantry as well as the cost of food. Sixty pounds of food from the food bank costs only $5, whereas that same amount of food at any grocery store would cost $74.
"That's pretty impactful," she said.
There is also a large problem with feeding the area's food insecure children. There are currently two summer feeding programs in Ottumwa, she said, at the Ottumwa YMCA and Salvation Army. But only 5 percent of Ottumwa's food insecure children utilize those services.
"We need to look at other ways to bring food to our kids," she said.
Applications for the 2013-14 program are available, and those interested can go to www.orlf.org to apply. Tuition for the year is $500 per student.
Russ Sporer, the dean for this year's academy, helped guide the curriculum and moderate the class. He said without good leadership, a community will not prosper or remain viable.
"Obviously for the future our community needs good, effective leaders in all walks of life," Sporer said. "They've learned an enormous amount about our community; they probably have a better understanding than 90 percent of our population."
— To follow reporter Chelsea Davis on Twitter, head to @ChelseaLeeDavis.